USA — It was after midnight, and the state fire investigator was chasing orange glows around southern Gage County.
First, a patch of burning grass near 148th Street and Olive Road. Then, in the distance, the glow of another, near Osage Road. Now a third fire, back toward Olive.
The winds that night would whip and fuel the flames; the investigator would call 911 and search for the next blaze.
He was chasing the fire-starter, too, that night earlier this month. He’d followed the suspect’s pickup out of Wymore, keeping his distance but keeping an eye on its tail lights. When the truck turned onto a gravel road, the investigator stopped on a hill and cut his lights.
“At around 0112 hours I observed an orange glow that I believed to be a fire,” he wrote.
Two hours later, the investigator would arrest the man he believed started those fires — Bryan Campbell, a 44-year-old former volunteer firefighter.
The state fire marshal would later say it’s uncommon for a Nebraska firefighter to be charged with arson. And it would be rare indeed for an investigator to actually watch a suspect light a fire.
But there was something familiar about that night in Gage County.
Seven years earlier, the same investigator had visited the same spot near Olive Road with the same suspect.
Then, Campbell had confessed to starting a series of field fires — using cigarettes and matchbooks to make delayed fuses, using a police scanner to dodge the law.
On July 13, 2004, the investigator typed a detailed report, making his case for arresting Campbell.
At the end of his affidavit, he wrote: “Finally Campbell states that he would continue this activity if he doesn’t receive help.”
‘A blow to the department’
Bryan Campbell was born into the Wymore Volunteer Fire Department. His father was a leader, serving as chief, assistant chief, secretary, truck foreman. He’s still on the squad, 52 years later.
The son joined when he turned 18, the minimum age.
“He was a good firefighter,” said Chief Gordon Michaelis. “He knew what he was doing, he knew how to run the pumps and everything.”
At the time, the Wymore department dispatched both fire and rescue squads in its 120-square-mile territory.
The younger Campbell was a member of both, and he stayed busy. The rescue squad rolled on 230 to 245 calls per year, Michaelis said. (It separated from the fire department last year.)
Campbell was dedicated, reliable, a good student — always keeping current on his classroom and field training, the chief said.
And he was so eager. “There were very few calls that he didn’t answer.”
His 2004 felony arson charges rocked the squad.
“It’s a blow to the department. If the person’s a good firefighter, you wonder why they were doing it,” Michaelis said. “I know, myself, I was very surprised. And I wondered why. I wondered what his intentions were to do it. What thrill he got out of it. Nobody knows what another person is thinking.”
The chief didn’t have to cut Campbell from the squad. “He went and resigned.”
Firefighters who start fires
As long as there have been fire departments, there have been firefighter arsonists, said Allison Moore of the National Volunteer Fire Council.
Less clear: How many firefighters, and how many fires.
Moore’s group, working with other agencies, is midway through a national effort to collect and analyze firefighter arson cases and suggest preventive measures — like background checks and education programs.
“What this is doing is looking into the problem and trying to grapple with the size of it, because we don’t really know.”
With no national tracking system, Moore is relying on media reports, focusing on publicized cases since 2000.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface, and we probably have like 200 cases right now.”
And her Google email alert — programmed to send her stories about firefighter arson — feeds her three or four new reports per week.
A 2004 study by the U.S. Fire Administration also tried, and failed, to measure the problem. “While there was no doubt firefighter arson occurs, the subcommittee was challenged by the lack of hard data. …”
It did point out that firefighters — and there are more than a million in the United States — commit just a fraction of arson cases.
Nebraska has more than 12,500 firefighters, most of them volunteers.
And most don’t start fires.
State Fire Marshal John Falgione said firefighter arson isn’t common here, although his office doesn’t ask arsonists what they do for a living.
Bill Lundy of York, secretary of the Nebraska Volunteer Firefighters Association and a 37-year volunteer firefighter, could recall only two cases — Bryan Campbell in Gage County, and a Scottsbluff-area firefighter caught lighting fires in fields and garbage cans.
His group encourages its member departments to have some kind of selection process, and many require recruits to pass criminal background checks.
But volunteer squads are in a tough position: They need bodies, and they don’t have budgets big enough to thoroughly screen recruits.
“They come from all walks of life. I’m sure there’s some people who wouldn’t be the best people to be volunteer firefighters, but how do you weed those out without being overly burdensome?”
It can come down to this, Lundy said: “Do we put another 20 gallons of diesel in the truck, or do we drug screen this guy?”
But that assumes the department reject — the one with the record, or with the drug problem — is the most likely suspect.
Sometimes, the arsonist is the best firefighter on the squad, Moore said.
“A lot of the cases, they want to be heroes. They’ll set a fire and then be the first to respond to it.”
Touring the fire scenes
Campbell wasn’t fighting his own fires when he was arrested the first time, in 2004.
But he would watch them, he told Adam Matzner, the state fire marshal investigator.
A series of grass fires burned through southern Gage County in spring 2003. Campbell confessed the next year, taking Matzner and a sheriff’s deputy on a tour.
“Campbell stated he was able to recall almost the exact spot based on landmarks, such as larger rocks in the road ditch, bunches of trees, or electric power poles,” Matzner wrote in his arrest affidavit.
Matzner pegged Campbell to four fires — set over a three-day stretch in March 2003, burning a total of 235 acres and costing landowners about $6,250 in pasture grass.
Campbell told Matzner he would scout the area, and the weather, before returning with his homemade fuse — a lit cigarette wedged in a matchbook that would give him up to 20 minutes to get away.
The cigarette would eventually ignite the matches. And the matches would ignite the grass.
Campbell was charged with four counts of felony arson, but he had other problems: The 37-year-old also was accused of sexually assaulting a teenage boy at his home.
He pleaded guilty to the assault and to two counts of arson and spent the next five years in prison.
Back behind bars
It’s not clear whether Campbell got any of the help he said he needed.
His lawyer in 2004, Roger Harris, is now the Gage County Attorney. He did not return several messages left at his office.
And Campbell did not respond to an interview request at the Gage County Jail, where he’s been since Matzner arrested him, again, April 3.
The night before, Matzner was called to investigate a suspicious fire on Olive Road and spotted Campbell’s pickup in Wymore. That’s when he started following the fires — and Campbell — around southern Gage County.
Matzner caught up with Campbell just after 2 a.m., at his parents’ house.
Inside the former firefighter’s pickup, he found a police scanner, lists of frequencies for police and fire departments, a Gage County map and, in the cup holder, a lighter.