Award-winning firefighter arrested for starting massive Anoka Co. wildfire

Award-winning firefighter arrested for starting massive Anoka Co. wildfire

8 April 2009

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USA — Firefighters always expect the unexpected when it comes to wildfires.

“Firefighters are highly trained in recognizing fire behavior,” says Bob Welsh with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

But what they don’t expect is a fellow firefighter to put colleagues in harm’s way.

“Disappointed,” says Welsh. “For anybody to start a fire, it’s just wrong.” Authorities say a man, usually fighting fires, actually started one. The wildfire Monday afternoon in Columbus consumed 1,500 acres and forced people to evacuate.

40-year-old John Berken is a volunteer firefighter in nearby Forest Lake. He was arrested on suspicion of arson. Authorities say he was arrested responding to the same fire he’s now accused of starting.

Witnesses reported seeing someone start the fire in a ditch possibly using fireworks. The dry grasses and cattails ignited quickly and fueled the raging wildfire.

“As the snow and the moisture dry off, it’s extremely volatile and can light very easily,” says Welsh.

The Columbus fire was one of six wildfires Monday. It’s not clear yet if Berken is connected to all of them, but authorities say the circumstances are suspicious.

Berken who once received a life-saving award has been with Forest Lake fire for several years acquaintances tell KARE 11. But he’s had a troubled past. Berken once ran the Forest Lake Ford dealership, which is now closed. Last year, American Express sued Berken for nearly $4 million for allegedly misusing company credit.

Acquaintances also say Berken had a failed restaurant venture and according to his criminal record, Berken served time in prison for check forgery. He is now likely facing arson charges.

Berken is currently being held in the Anoka County jail. Formal charges against him are expected Tuesday. Investigators tell KARE 11 Berken has not made any admissions.

It’s generally KARE 11’s policy to not name suspects until they’re charged with crimes. KARE is making an exception in this case, due to Berken’s position as a public figure with the fire department.

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