A Helena-area teenager who served briefly with a local volunteer fire department was charged Thursday with 12 counts of arson in connection with fires near York on Wednesday and in the Priest Pass area May 10.

Frederick James Maw, 18, was spotted on the scene of the fires outside York on Nelson Road, as well as in the Spokane Hills in Broadwater County on Tuesday, in full firefighting gear but apparently not affiliated with any of the fire crews.

According to early reports, he claimed he was a contract firefighter.

“His story of why he was in the area changed numerous times and did not fit the circumstances of the time,” a Lewis and Clark County sheriff’s deputy said in an affidavit Thursday.

Justice of the Peace Michael Swingley set bail at $100,000.

According to the deputy’s report, Maw had a “large trigger-operated lighter commonly used to light grills and fireplaces.”

Maw claimed to be hiking in the area but had no clothing in his vehicle other than firefighting gear, the report said.

Maw let the deputy look through his cellphone, and the deputy “located several text messages to his mother and girlfriend that were incriminating as to who may have started the fires,” the report said.

He eventually admitted starting all three sets of recent fires, according to the report — nine in the York area, three on Priest Pass on May 10 and two in the Spokane Hills on Tuesday.

Each arson count carries a possible penalty of 20 years in a prison and a fine of up to $50,000.

His arrest at about 5:50 p.m. Thursday capped a day in which fire crews scrambled to contain five fires suspiciously located on either side of Nelson Road. Deputies blocked the exit from the area in York to question travelers.

East Valley Volunteer Fire Chief Dave Sammons confirmed Thursday that Maw had served with that department for “about three or four months” last year before turning in his gear and preparing to join the military.

He had a relatively low level of participation in the department activities, Sammons said.

When Maw applied this winter to rejoin the department, he was refused, Sammons said, based on a review of his earlier performance.

Maw’s father, also named Frederick Maw, is a firefighter and trustee of the department. He could not immediately be reached for comment.

Sammons said the department does background checks on all its applicants and Maw’s raised no alarms.

“Nothing gave us any indication that it was something he would do,” he said. “We’re still all in a state of shock.”

The fires pressed multiple departments and agencies into action at the start of what some observers fear will be a busy fire season. Among the multiple blazes, the Helena National Forest pegged a fire in Sweats Gulch at 300 acres and Hunter Gulch at 120 acres.

The deputy’s affidavit said Maw could face additional charges for the Spokane Hills fires. Broadwater County Attorney Karla Rae Bosse said by email Thursday morning that the fires there remain under investigation.

Reporter Sanjay Talwani: 447-4086, sanjay.talwani@helenair.com.. Follow Sanjay on Twitter @IR_SanjayT.

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