USA — A key tool in the battle against wildfires stolen from a U.S. Forest Service base in the Sierra foothills — and although a suspect is in custody, it’s still missing, along with parts to 26 rifles.
Burglars hit the Forest Service station off Trimmer Springs Rd. at least four times over the course of four months.
The burglaries started in November when the crooks stole chainsaws and other tools used to fight fires, including a device used to set backfires from the USFS helicopter. It’s a $12,000 piece of equipment and it was one of only about ten in service across the entire state.
Firefighters battling last year’s massive Rim Fire from the air dropped a lot of water and flame retardant on the flames. But another tactic they used was to set backfires — small fires that act as a firebreak to stop the progress of the main fire line.
The tool they often use is the Red Dragon aerial ignition device. But the forest service is down one device this year because of burglars at a forest station in eastern Fresno County. They struck during the offseason, stealing nine chainsaws, shop tools, and the Red Dragon. But they didn’t stop there.
Detectives say the burglars struck again a couple weeks later, stealing parts for 26 AR-15 rifles and a big screen TV. They vandalized the forest service base on a third visit, and then stole a captain’s personal truck on a fourth burglary. That’s how investigators broke the case.
A search warrant shows officers spotted the truck at a home east of Clovis. When they served the warrant, detectives found several stolen items, including the truck as well as U.S. Forest Service paraphernalia and even a Fresno police uniform.
They arrested 30-year-old Stephen Bookwalter and charged him with the burglaries. But as fire season starts anew, the 80-pound aerial ignition device is still missing, and firefighters could be at a disadvantage when the next big fire breaks out.
Bookwalter has pleaded not guilty to the burglaries. He’s due back in court next month, and at least for now, the jail is holding him on a $110,000 bail.