A controversy over the cause of the blaze continues. Forestry officials maintain it was the result of arson. A citizens’ group opposed to prescribed (controlled) burning and other management practices carried out by the Division of Forestry says it was started by the division’s own controlled fire throwing sparks and embers into the hot wind.
“A lot of information has been accumulated, and since it is an ongoing investigation, there are some things I can’t say,” said Laura Jones, head of media relations for the Division of Forestry, “but what I can tell you is that our arson investigators found good reasons that led them to conclude that the fire was caused by arson.
“It’s not something neat and tidy where you find the proof right away. But we have a responsibility to find out who did it. Hopefully one day we’ll find that individual and will have something more to talk about.”
Cheryl Carpenter, founder of Voices for the Forest, headquartered in Lucasville. said, “Arson may be difficult to prove, but it is easy to disprove it. We believe it has been disapproved beyond he shadow of a doubt.”
Activities leading to the wildfire began the morning of Friday, April 24, 2009, the day before the 44th annual Portsmouth Trout Derby would be held on Turkey Creek Lake, located in Shawnee State Park within the forest.
The Division had scheduled a prescribed fire that day for 233 acres of forest land along East Fork. Such fires, closely supervised, are designed to burn “fuel” from the forest floor, such as broken limbs and tree trunks that had been felled by a 2003 ice storm, and thus help prevent wildfires from occurring.
The controlled burning also, forestry officials say, destroys some of the undesirable maples, undergrowth and invasive species, and promotes growth of desirable oak trees from their own acorns.
It was about 10:30 a.m when burn chief Michael Bowden ordered ignition. Weather forecasts called for winds gusting from 20 to 30 mph off and on throughout the day.
Six or seven hours later, three smaller fires were discovered along Mackletree Road, about half a mile downwind from the controlled fire. Gusty winds and hot, dry conditions were spreading the fires quickly. Forestry officials called for backup from local volunteer fire departments and had to abandon the controlled fire to fight the other fires, which were threatening some homes.
Forestry officials maintained there was no way their prescribed burn could have ignited the fires, and quickly blamed them on arson.
Two days after the alleged arson fires were discovered, a forest ranger along Mackletree Road arrested Michael Thompson, then 22, of Stout, a local volunteer firefighter, and accused him of deliberately setting fires.
According to Carpenter, Thompson had called 911 for backup from a nearby house where the fire was spreading.
The ranger said Thompson attempted to flee, was apprehended, and charged with third-degree felony arson. He was searched and “an accelerant” was found.
According to Carpenter, Thompson, at the time a smoker, was carrying a Bic lighter in his pocket.
He was taken to the Scioto County Jail and released on bail later than evening.
On July 1, 2009, all charges against Thompson were expunged after Scioto County Prosecutor Mark Kuhn said the Division had presented no proof to back up its charge against him.
Thompson is now assistant fire chief of the Nile Township Volunteer Fire Department.
Four months later, the ODNR announced it was offering a $25,000 reward for information leading to an arson conviction.
“We have trained arson investigators. Their work was reviewed by a neighboring state and they also came to the conclusion that it was arson,” Jones said.
The review by the West Virginia Division of Forestry she referred to was completed in mid-August 2009.
“This review,” Carpenter said, “was conducted at the request of the Ohio Division of Forestry, and solely on information supplied by the Ohio Division of Forestry. This review and the conclusions derived from it should not be construed to be an investigation.”
“I do not know what Miss Carpenter’s background (in such investigations) is, so I can’t speak to that. I just know that they came to the same conclusion,” Jones said.
The wildfire continued to rage and on the fifth day it appeared that perhaps as much as 4,000 acres might be consumed in the state forest, which covers 63,747 acres.
Ohio Department of Natural Resource crews and local volunteer firefighters battled the blaze around the clock for six days with more than 150 people, a helicopter and 11 bulldozers. After 37 miles of dozer line had been constructed and a heavy rain, the fire was out. It had burned 2,870 acres of woodlands.
The Ohio Division of Forestry is in the process of formulating a plan to manage the post-wildfire stands to benefit the more desired species, such as the oaks.
It has applied with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for permits to conduct three more prescribed burns between now and the end of the year. Two of the burns are planned for Brush Fork and one for the Upper Pond Run area.
Voices for the Forest and Friends planned to hold a protest rally against the burnings at 2 p.m. today at the entrance to Shawnee State Forest Headquarters on U.S. 52 at Friendship, according to Carpenter.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 236, or email@example.com.