Lost Hiker's Signal Fires Prove Costly

Philip Powers III faulted for 'reckless' actions that may have ultimately saved his life
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 23, 2023 8:21 AM CST
Lost Hiker to Pay $300K for Signal Fires
This May 2018 photo shows what was then a 40-acre blaze in the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness near Sedona, Arizona.   (Coconino National Forest)

Three signal fires set by a lost hiker who'd run out of food and water in Arizona helped ensure his rescue—and possibly his ruin. Philip Powers III has been ordered to pay nearly $300,000 for the emergency fires, one of which erupted into a 230-acre forest fire, the Washington Post reports. US judge Camille D. Bibles ordered the restitution last week, imposing monthly payments of $200 on top of a year of probation. If Powers sticks to that plan, it will take him 122 years to pay his debt. His attorneys have already begun an appeal, arguing the fires saved the life of the exhausted hiker in May 2018. He was well into an 18-mile hike through the Prescott and Coconino national forests when he became lost. His phone went dead and he resorted to drinking his own urine.

He ate coconut oil, peanut butter, and jam he found in a shack, per the Post. He also used a lighter to start a fire, though no one came after an hour. The next day, barely able to walk, the 37-year-old climbed a hill and lit two more fires, the largest of which was eventually noticed by firefighters in a helicopter. Though Powers was saved—he was treated for heat exhaustion, acute renal failure, rhabdomyolysis, and dehydration—the blaze spread to become the 230-acre Sycamore Fire, per Backpacker. It took a week for the US Forest Service to contain the flames at a cost of $500,000, per the Post. According to an affidavit, the national forests were under fire restrictions owing to dry conditions.

In response to seven misdemeanor charges, Powers' attorneys said there was no evidence Powers deliberately allowed the fire to spread or was able to stop it. But the judge determined he wouldn't have needed to use smoke signals if he'd been better prepared. In fact, she found he was on the wrong trail—50 miles from the similarly-named one he intended, per Backpacker. She faulted him for not bringing sufficient water (just under a gallon), a flashlight and navigation device apart from his phone, and something to signal for help. "[The necessity defense is] unavailable where the defendant fails to show he or she did not recklessly or negligently place him or herself in circumstances in which he would probably be forced to commit a crime," Bibles wrote, per the Post. (More hikers stories.)

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