Adams County authorities have identified andcontacted more than 100 victims of the state’s largest wildfire in decades inadvance of Monday’s court hearing.
Thomas J. Barnhart of Racine, who turns 55 today,is scheduled to attend his first hearing in Adams County Circuit Court on themisdemeanor charge of setting a forest fire. He is accused of setting a May 5fire that burned about 3,870 acres in the Big Flats area of Adams County. Thefire destroyed 30 homes and about 90 other buildings. If convicted, Barnhartfaces a maximum of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Lorraine Clementi of Big Flats said she receivedletters from the Adams County District Attorney’s Office informing her and herhusband about the status of Barnhart’s case. The letters include a response slipthat asks recipients to let officials know if they want to continue to benotified of the case’s progress, Clementi said.
Clementi also received a form from the DistrictAttorney’s Office asking if she and her husband want to join other victims in alawsuit against Barnhart. The couple paid about $2,000 to fix garage damagecaused by the fire.
“We still haven’t decided what we’re goingto do,” Clementi said. “We did have a loss.” Clementi doesn’t plan to attend any of Barnhart’s court appearances.
It’s Adams County Victim Witness CoordinatorPela Steiner’s job to make sure all the victims are informed of their rights andthe case’s progress through the court system.
“I’ve been putting in a little overtime,”Steiner said. “It is a bit overwhelming.”
Steiner mailed letters to all the known victimswithin the last two weeks.
Irene Kaye, 82, of Big Flats lost threebuildings in the fire. She has insurance and doesn’t want anything from Barnhart.
“I have no problems with him,” shesaid. “We feel it’s just one of those things.”
Kaye said she won’t attend next week’sappearance.
“I have no reason to go to it,” shesaid.
Steiner said she’s still gathering informationon the fire’s total cost. At this point, she said, officials don’t know ifproperty owners will file a lawsuit to recover their damages or if the DistrictAttorney’s Office will request restitution in the criminal case.
According to court documents: Dorothy L. Clarkand Barnhart, co-owners of the property where the fire started, both signed theburning permit they received at Country Deli and Grocery in Friendship. Thepermit allowed them to burn between 6 p.m. and midnight. The fire was reportedat 1:32 p.m.
Barnhart told investigators he started the firewith a butane lighter inside a ring of cement blocks to burn off the dead grassand make the area safe for campfires. The fire quickly got out of control andboth Barnhart and Clark tried to put it out with clothing, a shovel and a broomrake.
Clark tried to call 911 on a cell phone butcouldn’t get a signal. She went to a neighbor’s property and asked him to callfor her.
No one answered the phone at Barnhart’sresidence when the Daily Tribune tried to contact him this week.
District Attorney Mark Thibodeau was out of theoffice this week and unavailable for comment.