HAMILTON – The three 18-year-old Hamilton men charged with starting this summer’s Roaring Lion Fire that burned 16 homes appeared in Ravalli County Justice Court Tuesday afternoon.
Steven Banks, Tyler Landon Johnson and Cody William Knez were released on their own recognizance following short hearings scheduled a half-hour apart.
The three men and a juvenile girl allegedly went camping four days before the Roaring Lion Fire erupted on July 31 southwest of Hamilton. In addition to homes, the fire burned 8,465 acres and 49 outbuildings. It cost about $11 million to suppress.
The four camped about a mile from the Roaring Lion Trailhead in an undeveloped site, according to an affidavit filed in the case. They allegedly dug a hole for a campfire in a previously unused spot and placed rocks around the hole to create a fire ring.
After the fire was burning, the girl allegedly took a photo of the campfire and posted the picture the next day on Instagram, with a caption reading: “Camping is cooler when you do it with the people you love.”
That photograph was used by investigators to tie the four to the cause of the fire.
According to the affidavit, each of the four claimed some effort to extinguish the campfire. That included claims that creek water, drinking water and dirt were put on the fire at various times. Johnson claimed that he “felt” the fire in the morning to see if the heat was gone.
Investigators were able to identify the fire ring as the specific origin of the Roaring Lion Fire. Fire indicators showed the fire initially crept through fine fuels like pine needles, duff and small twigs for several hours to days before passage of a cold front that caused the fire to explode.
The three were accompanied in court by members of their families.
Ravalli County Attorney Bill Fulbright asked for the men to be released on their own recognizance, with the stipulation that they steer clear of national forest lands.
Initially, Ravalli County Justice of the Peace James Bailey said that while Fulbright’s request was unusual, under the circumstances he would consider it.
Knez was the first to appear. His appointed attorney, Ron Piper, asked Knez if he skied, went snowshoeing or sledding.
“I might go sledding,” Knez said.
Johnson later told Bailey that he liked to go fishing with his family on national forest lands.
Bailey agreed to allow Knez and Johnson access to the national forest, but said they could not carry any combustible materials like matches or lighters.
Banks said he had no need to go on national forest lands. Bailey allowed that condition to stand in his case.
The men will make their initial district court appearance on either Nov. 16 or 17.