From honors to a lawsuit

From honors to a lawsuit: Firefighter now arson suspect

7 April 2009

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Hometown hero’s already clouded reputation took another hit with arrest in Anoka County fire.

USA — Forest Lake firefighter John Berken seemed the classic hometown hero. The mayor honored him with a Lifesaving Award. A former Chamber of Commerce chairwoman on Tuesday remembered Berken, a former chamber board member, as “a good guy, a nice guy, fun to be around.”

But Berken’s reputation, since tarnished by financial and legal problems, seemed as clouded Tuesday as the billows of smoke that hovered over Anoka County just hours before. Berken, 40, was arrested on suspicion of starting and then returning to fight Monday’s fire that burned more than 2.3 square miles of the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area in Columbus.

A day after 200 firefighters extinguished wind-swept blazes that turned cattails and lowland grass into charred stubble, members of the Department of Natural Resources trudged through the smoke and ashes, assessing the damage. Gov. Tim Pawlenty summoned the National Guard to provide air assistance to fight the fire.

Authorities said Tuesday that Berken denied setting a fire.

Officials declined to speculate on a possible motive. Volunteer firefighters such as Berken are paid for on-call services, Forest Lake Fire Chief Gary Sigfrinius said. Forest Lake firefighters said they were told not to discuss their colleague or his alleged role in the fire.

The Anoka County attorney’s office, which has until noon today to charge Berken, sorted through investigators’ reports, while Berken’s old acquaintances searched for answers. “You wouldn’t expect this of anyone, but especially not of John Berken,” said Daree Selby, who was chairwoman of the Forest Lake Area Chamber of Commerce when Berken ran a local Ford dealership and was on the chamber board.

“He was very involved, a community guy. This doesn’t fit with who he was three years ago.”

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