YORK — Fredrick Maw of Helena is in custody in connection with wildfires in at least three locations in recent days, including Tuesday’s 55-acre blaze near the historic McMaster ranch, a five-fire complex near Nelson on Wednesday and a fire near Priest Pass last week.
The 18-year-old was arrested at about 5:50 p.m. by Lewis and Clark deputies, according to Sheriff Leo Dutton.
“He is being charged with multiple acts of arson,” Dutton said late Wednesday night. “The investigation into the (fire) starts is ongoing.”
Dutton anticipates that Maw will make his initial appearance in Justice Court in Helena at 1 p.m. Thursday before Judge Mike Swingley.
Initial reports noted that Maw allegedly had been seen at the various fires as a private contractor seeking employment.
Officials say nine fires of suspicious origin were discovered burning on the Helena National Forest Wednesday afternoon in the area between York and Nelson. Some of the fires were small and were stamped out or may have burned together to form the five-fire complex.
Two of the fires — one in Hunter Gulch and the other in Sweats Gulch — are actively burning. The largest of those two is at 200 acres, the smaller at 120 acres. The other three fires, which total less than 20 acres are pretty well under control, according to fire officials.
According to Helena National Forest Supervisor Kevin Riordan, there could have been more than the five fire starts, but the number cannot be verified.
Crews are expected to remain on the two fires throughout the evening. No structures are threatened at this time.
“We have very favorable weather conditions, and it should settle down tonight,” Riordan said. We are hoping probably after 8:00 tonight not to see a lot of fire activity up there. And if we get the projected moisture Thursday and Friday, we should be OK.”
Although initial reports said the blazes were in a line, Kathy Bushnell, the U.S. Forest Service information officer, said they actually were scattered about the area and burning on both sides of Beaver Creek Road.
Resources assisting the suppression efforts include the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, a 20-person forest hotshot crew, as well as volunteers with the Tri-Lakes, Eastgate, East Valley, West Valley, Lewis and Clark and Broadwater County fire departments. They were aided by two DNRC helicopters.
One engine was pulled off the Spokane Ridge fire burning in Broadwater County.
The Nelson-area fires bring the number of fires started in the past two days to six. The other fire at the historic McMaster Ranch property grew to about 55 acres Tuesday before about 80 firefighters, aided by two state helicopters, were able to limit it. The causes of all the fires remains undetermined.
Sonny Stiger, a longtime firefighter and current behavior analyst, said conditions are ripe for uncontrolled burns and he urged members of the public to be extremely cautious. Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton has prohibited open burning at this point due to high winds and low moisture.
Stiger said he’s never seen it this dry at this time of year. He said the moisture currently in fuels like long grasses are more typical of what’s seen in late July or August instead of mid May. For example, the drought index, which runs from a scale of zero to 800, currently sits at 653.
“That’s absolutely unheard of at this time of year,” Stiger said. “That means that we would need 6 ½ inches of rain to saturate the duff (pine needles and other ground cover). From Thursday through Saturday night, they’re calling for showers, and we could get a half-inch to three-quarters-inch of rain. That’s got to help us; at least everybody might get a good night’s sleep.”