Ham Lake fire indictment does little to appease victims

Ham Lake fire indictment does little to appease victims

22 October 2008

published by www.duluthnewstribune.com

USA — Even if the Gunflint Trail community knows who started the Ham Lake wildfire on that windy morning in May 2007, it’s not going to turn ashes into cabins. It’s not going to take the black off the dead trees.

Reaction was mixed Tuesday as word spread that a 64-year-old Washington, D.C., man was indicted for allowing his campfire on Ham Lake to blow out of control, triggering Minnesota’s largest and most expensive forest fire in 80 years.

Stephen George Posniak was indicted by a grand jury in federal court in Minneapolis, some 18 months after the fire raged. He now faces a trial in federal court.

Bob Baker, owner of Gunflint Pines Resort and Campground, said the indictment will be good news for many people in the area who have wondered who started the blaze.

Baker’s family and resort guests had to rapidly evacuate as the fire threatened, although the resort was spared from damage.

“I’m sure people will be happy to know. This will put a little bit of closure on it,’’ said Baker, who also serves on the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department.

But Baker said the indictment won’t affect how the wilderness community moves forward.

“The country here has changed forever, at least for my lifetime,’’ Baker said. “The new growth is coming back … and the community has pulled together. We’ve learned a lot on how to protect our homes. But finding out who did it really doesn’t change anything.”

Jan Sivertson, whose cabin on the shore of Seagull Lake burned to the ground in the fire, said she’s not seeking revenge. Unless the fire was arson, or the camper made no effort to douse the campfire, Sivertson said the man should not be prosecuted.

Sivertson, whose cabin was insured, has a new foundation in place and is starting to rebuild.

“I’d rather not know who did it. I feel bad for him, actually. With as dry as it was, it could have happened to anyone,’’ Sivertson said. “There was no fire ban on. And for all we know he may have tried to put it out. … We’ve all had fires we thought were out that spring back up. It’s not going to help anyone to punish this man any more.”

Forest Service officials had been waiting for the indictment for months but only heard of it Tuesday morning, said Kris Reichenbach, spokeswoman for the Superior National Forest. Both Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officers investigated the case, which was presented to the U.S. Attorney in July 2007.

“We’re pleased to have an outcome for the investigation. We appreciate the effort by the Department of Justice and our staff to get the case this far,’’ Reichenbach said.

Until Tuesday, it was unclear when or even if prosecutors would pursue the case.

The U.S. Attorney’s office would not comment on the time it took to secure the indictment.

Indictment details

The indictment alleges that on May 5, 2007, Posniak started a fire of paper trash and other items and allowed it to get out of control at his Ham Lake campsite in the Superior National Forest, just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The campfire spurred a wildfire that burned across 75,000 acres — 118 square miles — along the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota and Ontario. The fire cost $11 million to battle and destroyed nearly 150 buildings worth more than $10 million. No one was injured.

Posniak is charged with one count of setting timber afire, one count of leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished and one count of giving false information to a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer.

The indictment says Posniak told officers he was camped on Cross Bay Lake, not Ham Lake, the morning of May 5. Posniak told officers that he came across the already-started fire when he canoed across Ham Lake, the indictment claims.

If convicted, he faces a potential penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine on the felony count of setting timber afire as well as six months each for the other misdemeanor counts.

Posniak, reached by phone at his Washington home Tuesday afternoon, said he couldn’t talk about the case until after he spoke to his attorney. Posniak is a retired employee of U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

He will be ordered to appear before a magistrate judge in Minneapolis within 10 days, at which point he would be allowed to enter an oral plea. A trial date could be set at that time, said David Anderson, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota.

Civil damages also could be pursued to repay losses caused by the fire, although no such effort has been made so far in the Ham Lake case, Anderson said.

It’s also possible property owners who suffered losses, or their insurance companies if they were covered, could sue Posniak if he’s found responsible for causing the fire.

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