On June 17, 2017, a wildfire began in wooded mountains near the town of Brian Head, Utah. And while fire crews soon got to the scene, extinguishing the blaze was no easy task; in fact, the flames would still rage on ten days later. Then, however, some firefighters made a truly explosive discovery.
That wildfire in the Cedar Mountain area of Utah’s Iron County was not just your run-of-the-mill conflagration, though. The Brian Head blaze was in fact the worst wildfire ever in the records of the state, since it ended up scorching an area of 72,000 acres.
The fire destroyed no fewer than 13 homes; the overall cost of fighting the blaze, meanwhile, has been estimated at a cool $34 million. And 2017 was decidedly not a good year for wildfires in Utah. In total, fires ravaged some 250,000 acres of land in the state during those 12 months – with the bill for damage to buildings subsequently coming to $4 million.
What’s more, the damage caused by a fire on this scale doesn’t end when the flames are finally extinguished. Indeed, the environmental impact may last for many years afterwards – not least through soil erosion. Tree roots act to retain soil; therefore, if trees are felled or simply burned up, their former terrain may become prone to rock falls and mudslides.
On June 27, 2017, though, firefighters battling against the Brian Head blaze started to hear strange noises near a feature called Henderson Hill. They later described the sound as “popping”; initially, it was thought that the din was caused by rocks exploding due to the high temperature of the fire.
Still, the noises persisted. And after the sounds had gone on for some five minutes, the firefighters realized that rocks weren’t responsible; instead, they had heard live ammunition going off. Prudently, the emergency crew waited until the explosions had completely stopped before making their way towards their apparent origin.
The firefighters now found the charred shell of a cabin. And not far from the smoking ruins was a kind of underground bunker. There, ammunition, explosive material and fuses were reportedly stored. There was also apparently a supply of foodstuffs and some novelty hand grenades – the latter of which had been machined to turn them into actual weapons.
Puzzled by what they had found hidden in the burnt-out woods, the firefighters reported what they’d seen to the cops. They also called off operations on the ground in the vicinity due to the understandable fear that there could be more weaponry hidden among the blackened trees.
And eventually, the forces of law and order swung into action. The Iron County Sheriff’s Office brought in the Washington County Bomb Squad who, in turn, called on the services of the FBI’s Special Agent Bomb Technicians. United States Forest Service agents and a helicopter from the Utah State Highway Patrol were also used in the investigation.
A handpicked team was now choppered to the site of the burnt-out cabin and bunker. And when they got there, they allegedly found “dozens of hand grenades” – some fitted with fuses, others not. Armaments experts destroyed some of the more dangerous grenades as well as a cache of powder seen on site.
The helicopter then carried out an aerial survey of the land around the cabin and spotted two other buildings. Firefighters working on a nearby mountain slope also found another stash including the charred remains of canned food and ammunition. And all of these structures were on land owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration – a public body.
Meanwhile, officers from the Iron County Sheriff’s Office had not been idle. They had actually identified a man who they thought may know something about these mysterious caches of food, armaments and ammunition. And when law enforcement confronted the individual at his home in Parowan, Utah, he seemed to be ready to talk.
Yet while the sheriff’s office remained tight-lipped about the identity of the man at the time, it did however relay what he had supposedly said through a press statement. “Officers responding to Parowan were able to locate the person of interest at his residence, and an interview was conducted,” the statement read.
And the suspect apparently did not hold back. He is said to have told the officers that the cabins and bunkers they’d found were indeed his handiwork – so too were the hand grenades. Furthermore, the man reportedly confessed, there were at least seven buildings hidden in the woods – most with stashes of guns, ammunition and food. He had devoted years of his life to this project, in fact.
Meanwhile, in a 2017 interview with the Associated Press, Lieutenant Del Schlosser from the Iron County Sherriff’s Office claimed that the suspect had spent 30 years building his network of well-supplied cabins and bunkers. “His only intent was to defend what he had there if the end of the world was to come,” the officer explained.
Supposedly, the man had feared that the end times may be around the corner at any moment. In order to survive a complete societal Armageddon, then, the survivalist had built four cabins as well as underground bunkers in the woods. He had hauled up the necessary materials bit by bit over the decades.
Schlosser also revealed that the man had constructed the network over an area some two miles across. “If you pack a few things in here and there, people don’t notice that,” he added to the Associated Press. There were more than a few items in one cabin, however, as it was discovered to have been kitted out with food and water, bunk beds, ammunition and even reading material.
Then in August 2018, more than a year after the Brian Head fire and the discovery of the cabins and bunkers, a sensational development was made in the case: the identity of the mystery man who had built the structures was revealed to the world. According to a report in the Deseret News, the individual’s name is Richard O. Batt, and he was 82 years old at the time of his unveiling in the newspaper.
Then, after having appeared at Iron County’s 5th District Court, Batt was formally charged with the third-degree felony of possession of incendiary device parts. He was slated for a further court appearance in September 2018 – the outcome of which is currently unknown.
So, it may turn out that this bizarre cache of weapons and supplies was the work of an 82-year-old survivalist. But should we be treating him as a dangerous criminal who put life and limb at risk? Or should we regard him as simply an eccentric old man whose peculiar obsession was unluckily exposed by the forest fires that ravaged Utah in 2017?