USA — The biggest fire to strike the Shawnee State Forest in 20 years was set by a volunteer firefighter, Ohio forestry officials said today.
Michael W. Thompson, 22, of Stout, a volunteer with the Nile Township Fire Department, was charged with arson in Portsmouth Municipal Court today. He’s accused of setting at least two fires Friday that have consumed more than 1,500 acres of the 63,747-acre forest.
State and local crews were working to contain the fire under hot, dry and windy conditions that prompted the National Weather Service to issue its highest “red flag” alert for wildfire dangers. The alert covered 32 counties, including Franklin, Delaware, Fairfield, Licking, Madison, Pickaway and Union counties in central Ohio.
The fire is expected to continue Tuesday, with some relief coming with the forecast of afternoon rain.
Andy Ware, spokesman with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Forestry Division, said agency firefighters had to abandon a controlled burn, a fire they deliberately set in a separate location Friday, to fight the set fires and keep them away from nearby homes.
“Our highest priority was to the families and the residences in that area,” said Ware, who estimated the fire came within 100 feet of some homes and barns without damaging them.
The controlled fire escaped its 200-acre boundary and eventually joined the other fires in one, big blaze.
Ware said the controlled fire, called a “prescribed burn,” was set about 2 miles from where the other two fires began along Mackletree Road south of the Shawnee State Park Lodge. In addition to living trees, it was intended to burn dead trees and limbs left from a 2003 ice storm that were deemed wildfire risks.
Thompson was charged with a fourth-degree felony count of arson and a fifth-degree felony count of possessing criminal tools. Ware said the tools included matches and other “ignitable” materials. The arson charge is punishable by 18 months in prison and a $5,000 fine.
Ware said Thompson was not involved in the controlled burn, which was managed by state firefighters.
Weather conditions Friday were OK for the controlled burn, he said. “The prescribed burn was conducted 36 hours after four consecutive days of wet, cold conditions here at Shawnee State Forest,” Ware wrote in an e-mail.
David Maywhoor, director of the Buckeye Forest Council, which opposes controlled burns, criticized the state agency for letting its fire get out of control.
“They can’t even control the fires that they set, let alone the human beings they have to interact with,” Maywhoor said. “It’s dangerous to the people who live near the forest and it’s dangerous to the firefighters.”
“We strongly believe if there had not been these unusually large wildfires that we certainly would have been able to maintain the boundaries of the prescribed burn,” Ware said yesterday.