One year ago, a 4th of July fire in Cottonwood Heights scorched 25-acres of land and a home. Now, the homeowner wants the company who owns the plot of land next door to pay up. According to the company, he’s pointing fingers in the wrong direction.
“It was terrifying,” said Dave Schoeneck, a Cottonwood Heights homeowner.
Last Independence Day, Schoeneck was 2,000 miles away in upstate New York.
“I got a phone call out of a dead sleep, 12:30 at night, from my neighbor, he says, ‘Dave your house is about to go up in flames,’” said Schoeneck, recalling the moment he first found out about the fire inching toward his Utah home.
“I felt so helpless,” said Schoeneck. “At that point all I could do was pray, and so I did.”
Schoeneck’s wife, Jodie, was home -- watching as the flames approached and ignited their home of 21 years.
“Melted siding, the broken windows, the smoke that had gotten in the house… that was just like, ‘oh my gosh, this is our home?!’” said Schoeneck, describing his thoughts when he first saw his home after the blaze.
The fire was started by an aerial firework. It sparked a blaze in a neighbor’s yard that spread through five different plots of land before reaching Schoeneck's house.
Wednesday, on the one year anniversary of the fire, Schoeneck held a two pronged protest – on one hand, to try and change aerial firework laws in Utah.
“I don’t want what happened to us to happen to other people or worse, where people die,” Schoeneck said.
Schoeneck is also holding a single property owner, Security National Financial Corporation, responsible for money he’s spent out-of-pocket while repairing damage to his home,
“It is a little bit odd to me that Dave only focuses on us, when literally four other fields caught on fire,” said Adam Quist, Vice President of Security National Financial Corporation (SNFC).
SNFC owns the 55-acre "Wildland Interface Area" next to Schoeneck’s home, the last of the five plots of land to catch fire before Schoeneck’s house was ignited.
“They’re responsible, they need to take responsibility for it. I’ve never asked them for anything more than what’s come out of their pocket,” Schoeneck added.
Schoeneck said he’s paid nearly $30,000 dollars for repairs (outside of what they received from their insurance company).
“There’s things they just wouldn’t cover from deductibles, to half of the roof, to a cooling system, there’s just things that they wouldn’t cover,” he said.
According to Schoeneck, if it weren’t for the kindling in SNFC’s field, his house would never have caught fire in the first place.
“It was their field that conducted all of that flame that engulfed our house,” said Schoeneck.
“Tender Oak, Sage Brush, Russian Olive, tall dead grass, 55 acres of it,” he added, describing the field.
Over the last 14-years Schoeneck said he’s warned SNFC of the fire hazard their field represents, but SNFC maintains that they’ve always been up to code and in line with recommendations from the city and state.
“We think it is unfair for Dave to say we haven’t maintained the field,” said Quist.
“In order to have it be a token of good faith, we’ve tried to go above and beyond even more this year,” said Quist. “We don’t know what else we could do, short of salting the whole field.”
Schoeneck believes they could have done more, saying had they taken the precautions last year that they did this year his house may never have caught fire in the first place.
“What they’ve done this year to mitigate that, which is 20 times more than what they’ve done any other year, that’s a smoking gun. If that’s not an admission of guilt that you have put our neighborhood at risk for all of these years, I don’t know what is,” Schoeneck said.
“I’d just like them to do the right thing. Nothing should have come out of my pocket, this was not my fault,” he added.
Since the fire, Schoeneck has been lobbying for fireworks law reform.
Aerial fireworks laws in the state of Utah are completely negligent,” said Schoeneck.
But with money seemingly at the forefront of Schoeneck’s protests, SNFC has reason to question his motives.
He has told us he would call off the protest if we would pay him money, it usually varies between 20 and 30 thousand dollars,” said Quist.
“If fire safety’s the main concern, why would money paid to Dave solve the fire safety concern?” Quist added.
According to SNFC, they weren’t to blame a year ago, and they still aren’t to blame today.
“When Dave asks Security National Financial Corporation to pay money, he’s really asking the shareholders to pay money,” Quist said.
“We don’t think it’s moral to ask shareholders to pay for improvements to someone’s house, because Dave has been compensated by his insurance company for the damages that were caused to his house,” Quist added.
Schoeneck maintains, it’s not about money.
“If I just wanted money, a year ago I just would have sued them,” he said.
Schoeneck said so far they have made some headway in their lobbying efforts to get aerial fireworks banned for good in Utah, but so far things aren’t moving as quickly as they’d like.