HAMILTON – Three 18-year-old Hamilton men and a 16-year-old female juvenile face felony and misdemeanor negligent arson charges for allegedly starting this summer’s Roaring Lion fire, which destroyed 16 homes and cost $11 million to fight.
The four built a campfire four days before the fire sprang to life on a small bluff just off Roaring Lion Creek.
Investigators believe the campfire, which was not fully extinguished, crept through pine needles, twigs and duff before a cold front swept through the area and sent the flames into the canopy to create a blaze that would eventually burn more than 13 square miles.
Tyler Landon Johnson, Steven Banks, Cody William Knez and the 16-year-old girl will appear in Ravalli County Justice Court on Nov. 1. Each will face one felony and one misdemeanor count of negligent arson.
Government agencies and insurance companies also could seek restitution for firefighting costs and lost property if the four are found guilty of causing the fire.
The origin of the Roaring Lion fire was marked 15 minutes after the first reports of smoke were received on July 31 by the Ravalli County Dispatch, according to an affidavit filed in the case.
The initial report was filed at 2:20 p.m. By 2:35 p.m., a Forest Service helicopter pilot flew over what was then a one-acre blaze and marked its origin with a GPS.
By 2:57 p.m., the helicopter pilot reported the fire had spread to 20 acres. At 3:23 p.m. – 48 minutes after his initial observation – the pilot said the fire had grown to between 400 and 500 acres. By that time, the fire was sending out embers a quarter-mile ahead of the flames, which were igniting spot fires that grew to five acres within seven minutes.
Fire investigators were able to fly over the area where the fire started on Aug. 2, which was about one mile west of the Roaring Lion Trailhead. Near that area, investigators saw what appeared to be a campfire ring and other “evidence of human presence,” principally trash that had been left behind.
Immediately following the fire, Ravalli County Undersheriff Steve Holton said investigators were inundated with potential leads from the public. All of those took time to fully consider.
“There was a lot of information for investigators to sift through,” said Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright. “A lot of those leads simply didn’t pan out. It seemed like everyone in the county had an opinion.”
The four being charged told investigators they had camped overnight at the location of the fire pit on the afternoon and evening of Wednesday, July 27, according to the affidavit.
They dug a hole in a previously unburned spot and placed rocks around its edge to create the pit.
After the fire was burning in it, the juvenile took a photo and posted it on Instagram, with the caption: “Camping is cooler when you do it with the people you love.”
A civilian criminal investigator with the sheriff’s office later matched that photo with a post-fire photo of the scene. Holton said she looked at hundreds of pictures before making that match.
“If our detective who took that photo was just 20 yards to the right, it would have matched up perfectly,” Holton said. “It was a good call by our investigator and a very thorough observation.”
During the interviews, each of the four said efforts were made to extinguish the campfire, the affidavit said. Those included claims that creek water, drinking water and dirt were put on the fire at various times.
Johnson also claimed to have “felt” the fire in the morning to see if the heat was gone.
Investigators determined the campfire pit had been dug about a foot deep into native combustible material. The investigators were also able to determine the campfire was the specific origin of the Roaring Lion fire.
The Forest Service incident report said the fire crept east out of the campfire ring in a low intensity burn that could have lasted several hours or days before it was exposed to wind and a continuous forest with ladder fuels that allowed it to transition into the forest canopy.
Investigators determined that the fire ring couldn’t have been used after the four left the site on July 28th because various items of trash left by the group were found inside the fire ring. Those items included water, pop and tea bottles, packaging for hot dogs and sausage, a partially burned firecracker-type firework, and a partially smoked cigar. Also found in the surrounding area were unfired .22 caliber shells, an unexploded firecracker and packaging from Jackpot-brand Cigarillos.
The items were consistent with reported purchases made by the group and confirmed on surveillance video and various store receipts.
"It was just negligence," Holton said. "Best practices for extinguishing a fire weren't followed."