Gender-Reveal Party Accident Leaves Border Agent Bearing Guilt For Wildfire

When Dennis Dickey lined up his rifle, he was ready for a surprise. That is the point of a gender-reveal party, after all, and Dickey’s inanimate target was ready to yield its unpredictable answer just as soon as he fired. But it wasn’t his child’s gender that was to offer the biggest bombshell of his family bash last year.

That distinction goes to the wildfire he started.

The 37-year-old Border Patrol agent pleaded guilty Friday to violating U.S. Forest Service rules and starting the Sawmill Fire near Tucson, Ariz., while off-duty.

“Dickey had placed Tannerite, a highly explosive substance, inside the target, intending for it to detonate when shot by a high-velocity firearm bullet,” the U.S. attorney’s office for Arizona explained in a statement.

Tannerite is a name-brand explosive powder. “When shot with a high-power rifle,” the company says on its website, “it produces water vapor and a thunderous boom.” And the company even sells an $85 package that offers “everything you need for a gender reveal” — including pink or blue powder.

The colors that actually ended up dominating the day were orange and red.

“Dickey fired shots at the Tannerite target,” federal authorities continued, “ultimately causing an explosion that started a fire that spread and resulted in damage to more than 45,000 acres of land managed by the State of Arizona, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and various private landholders.”

He “immediately reported the fire to law enforcement, cooperated, and admitted that he started the fire,” Forest Service Special Agent Brent Robinson noted in a federal court filing last month. He added that the blast was “caught on film by a witness.”

Yet, however quickly Dickey alerted the authorities, the inferno moved faster.

Before some 800 firefighters managed to get it contained about two weeks later, the blaze racked up a price tag of more than $8 million — costs that Dickey has now agreed to pay in restitution, according to the U.S. attorney.

It remains unclear if he is on the hook for the full amount, though. Local media, citing Dickey’s attorney, report that with the plea, he agreed to pay $100,000 up front and another $120,000 in monthly installments over the next two decades, presuming his income does not increase significantly in that span.

Also, Dickey would be on five years’ probation and appear in a public service announcement for the Forest Service, if the judge agrees to the terms of the deal with prosecutors.

“It was a complete accident,” he said in court, according to the Arizona Daily Star. “I feel absolutely horrible about it. It was probably one of the worst days of my life.”

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.