Skip to main contentSkip to main content
You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

Border agent to pay $220K for Tucson-area wildfire sparked at gender-reveal party

The Sawmill Fire began in April 2017 in the foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains when an off-duty border agent shot an explosive target.

An off-duty Border Patrol agent was holding a gender-reveal celebration for his wife’s pregnancy last year when he accidentally started a 47,000-acre wildfire, his attorney said.

The incident will cost Dennis Dickey $220,000 in restitution after he pleaded guilty Friday in federal court in Tucson to a misdemeanor charge of causing a fire without a permit.

Nearly 800 firefighters from various agencies battled the Sawmill Fire for about a week in April 2017. The total cost of fighting the fire and the damage it caused was about $8.2 million.

The wildfire began when Dickey shot a target that contained Tannerite, an explosive substance designed to detonate when shot by a high-velocity firearm, U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Brent Robinson wrote in an affidavit filed Sept. 20 in U.S. District Court. The explosion was caught on film by a witness.

Tannerite is a legal compound that has been linked to wildfires in several other Western states.

The explosive target was part of a celebration of his wife’s pregnancy and contained colored powder to show the gender of their baby, blue for a boy or pink for a girl, Dickey’s attorney, Sean Chapman, told the Arizona Daily Star.

“Dickey immediately reported the fire to law enforcement, cooperated, and admitted that he started the fire,” Robinson wrote in the affidavit.

Chapman said after the hearing that Dickey ran over to put out the fire as soon as it began, but “within seconds it was 30 feet wide.”

Dickey is on the hook for $8.2 million in restitution, but under his plea agreement he will pay $100,000 when he is sentenced Oct. 9 and another $120,000 in monthly installments of $500 for the next 20 years.

The government agreed not to seek any more assets from Dickey unless he somehow finds himself with a lot more money, Chapman said in court.

Dickey also will be sentenced to five years of probation. He will participate in a public service announcement with the U.S. Forest Service about the cause of the fire.

“It was a complete accident,” Dickey, 37, told U.S. Magistrate Judge Leslie A. Bowman on Friday in court. “I feel absolutely horrible about it. It was probably one of the worst days of my life.”

Dickey will borrow from his retirement fund to pay the $100,000 due at sentencing, Chapman told the Star. Ordering Dickey to pay $8.2 million to cover the cost of the fire would have been “like getting blood from a stone” because he could never come up with that much money, Chapman said.

Setting the fire was not a willful act, which meant he couldn’t be charged with arson, Chapman said. The charge of starting a fire without a permit was a petty offense and Chapman said he expected Dickey likely would keep his job as a Border Patrol agent.

The fire was started by Dickey on state-owned land near Madera Canyon. It spread across the Santa Rita Mountains foothills to Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land, including portions of the Empire Ranch. At its peak, the fire forced the closure of Arizona 83.

At the time Dickey shot the explosive target, winds were gusting up to 40 mph and the National Weather Service had issued a fire watch, Chuck Wunder, chief of the Green Valley Fire Department, told the Arizona Daily Star in May 2017. A fire watch is a red flag, warning that “conditions are ideal for wildland fire combustion and that there is potential for rapid spread,” Wunder said.

No injuries were reported from the fire and no buildings were destroyed, but some households in the Greaterville and Singing Valley areas were evacuated. At times, hundreds of homeowners were under pre-evacuation orders.

UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect Dickey will be held responsible for $8.2 million in restitution.

Contact reporter Curt Prendergast at 573-4224 or or on Twitter @CurtTucsonStar

Subscribe to stay connected to Tucson. A subscription helps you access more of the local stories that keep you connected to the community.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

As a private defense attorney, Sean Chapman argued a string of high-profile cases in recent years. In 2018, for example, jurors sided with his defense of Border Patrol agent Lonnie Swartz, who was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter and second-degree murder after shooting a Mexican teen through the border fence. 

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News