The 2018 wildfire outside Sedona was similar to the 2014 Slide fire. (Photo: Getty Images)

A Lost Hiker’s SOS Signal Sparked a Wildfire. Now He Must Pay $300,000.

A man says he required lifesaving when he accidentally ignited a 2018 wildfire. An Arizona court determined that his negligence made him culpable.

Adam Roy

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Philip Powers was getting desperate. It was May 28, 2018, and the 37-year-old Arizona hiker had just spent a miserable night at the Taylor Cabin, an old sheep rancher’s shack in the rugged Sycamore Canyon Wilderness, about an hour northwest of Sedona. He had barely slept: All night long, he had suffered from muscle cramps in his legs. As if that weren’t enough, he had discovered a rattlesnake in the cabin. Afraid it would bite him, Powers killed it and tossed its body outside.

Now, a few miles into his 14-mile march back to the car, his legs were cramping again, forcing him to stop and sit in the shade. He was out of food, his phone was dead, and the last of his water was gone. As he would later tell a law enforcement ranger from the U.S. Forest Service, Powers feared he was “done.”

The night before, Powers had attempted to start a signal fire, but it had quickly burned out. Now, he tried again, heaping dry foliage around the base of a snag and sparking it up with his Bic lighter. He hoped that the dead tree would go up in flames, and someone would see it and come to his rescue.

That emergency fire would spread, growing to a 230-acre blaze dubbed the Sycamore Fire that eventually took hotshots and air attack units more than a week to contain. As for Powers, someone did rescue him—a Forest Service helicopter responding to the fire picked him up—but his trials weren’t over. He now owes the government nearly $300,000 in restitution and faces three years of probation after a federal district court convicted him of a crime this week for the actions he took that day.

In the early morning of May 27, Powers set out to hike what he believed was the 17-mile Cabin Loop, which his guidebook described as an easy-to-moderate trail. In his pack, he carried a little less than a gallon of water, a handful of snacks, and a battery-powered cell phone charger. While he planned to finish the trail in a single day, he also carried camping gear, including stove fuel, a sleeping bag and hammock, a machete, and another large knife. As he walked, the temperature climbed above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and conditions were bone-dry.

Court documents from Powers’ case paint a vivid picture of how his hike went wrong. The trail was well-marked at first, and he made it to Taylor Cabin without any issue. A few miles beyond that, however, the trail became rough and overgrown, and Powers soon realized he was lost. For about a half-hour to 40 minutes, he attempted to pick up the trail again before giving up and doubling back to the cabin, arriving there at roughly 6 P.M.

Taylor Cabin
Taylor Cabin, where Powers spent the night (Photo: Jon Root via Getty)

At that point, as Powers later put it to an investigator with the Forest Service, “shit was getting real.” He was down to about a half-liter of water, a mango, and two mandarin oranges, and looking at a 14-mile hike back to his car. While he carried a cell phone, he had no service, meaning he couldn’t find his location on a map and none of his calls for help went through. He found some old peanut butter, jam, and coconut oil in the cabin and ate all three of them. When his water ran out the next day, he tried drinking his own urine. After his rescue, doctors at the Sedona Emergency Department diagnosed powers with heat exhaustion, acute renal failure, rhabdomyolysis—a dangerous and painful condition in which damaged muscle releases proteins into the blood—and dehydration.

Federal prosecutors would charge Powers with seven misdemeanors related to the blazes—he set three, though only the second grew—including lighting a fire when prohibited by a Forest Service order and leaving a fire unattended. While Powers and his lawyers didn’t dispute the major facts of the case, they argued that he shouldn’t be held accountable, because had lit the fires as a last resort in a life-threatening emergency.

In her verdict, United States Magistrate Judge Camille D. Bibles disagreed. Powers, she wrote, “was reckless and negligent in his preparation for a hike of this magnitude from the outset.” He hadn’t packed a GPS device, paper map, or compass, instead relying on a cell phone mapping app that was useless without service. He had failed to bring a headlamp or flashlight, instead relying on his phone’s built-in light. While he had brought two large knives, he hadn’t brought a first-aid kit or any method of signaling for help in an emergency. He wasn’t, she said, even on the right trail: Instead of the 17-mile, moderate Cabin Loop, he was hiking the 18.8-mile Taylor Cabin Loop, a full 50 miles away, which his guidebook rated as strenuous.

Critically, Bibles wrote, Powers hadn’t brought enough water. He carried a total of 116 fluid ounces, or just under a gallon, in a bladder and bottle in his pack. While boilerplate backpacking advice tells hikers to plan on using a gallon per person per day, hikers working hard in hot temperatures may require more than that: In his testimony, Dr. Jeff Hardin, who treated Powers, told the court that a person on an 18-mile hike in the heat would require two to three gallons of water—a whopping 16 to 25 pounds—to avoid dehydration.

When it comes to underpacking water, Powers isn’t alone: Some studies suggest that most hikers in hot climates don’t carry as much water as their bodies need. For a 2020 paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, researchers from Arizona State University put heat-acclimated hikers through a time trial in both 68°F and 105°F temperatures, asking them to hike repeated laps up a mountain while measuring their performance and liquid intake. Based on their sweat rate, researchers found that 58 percent of hikers on the hot day didn’t bring enough liquid to replenish what they were losing. Most ended up dehydrated, losing an average of 1 percent of their body weight in liquid, some twice that.

Could Powers, dehydrated and weak in a remote area without any method of communication, have summoned help without being slapped with criminal charges? In her verdict, Bibles suggested that he could have avoided at least some of them, pointing to the case of Robert Launder. In 1984, Launder was camping at Mt. Lemmon near Tucson when he became lost. After clearing a five-to-ten-foot area on a rock ledge, Launder lit a signal fire, which a gust of wind soon spread. Despite Launder’s efforts to put it out, the blaze  became a wildfire. He received three years of probation before an appeals court reversed the verdict, ruling that he lacked criminal intent, and that while fire danger was significant, the Forest Service hadn’t banned campers from lighting fires.

Unlike Launder, Bibles said, Powers had taken no precautions to prevent the spread of his emergency fires: Instead of building them in the rock ring by Taylor Cabin, he purposely had lit one of them around a dead tree with the intent of setting it on fire, then continued walking down the trail while it was still ablaze. Beyond that, she said, he was also hiking in an area under stage 2 fire restrictions, where setting fires was illegal regardless of the circumstances.

It isn’t clear whether Powers intends to appeal the decision; by press time, he and his attorney had not responded to a request for comment.

Lead Photo: Getty Images