“We’ve had a number of groups claiming that the prescribed fire we conducted was the cause of the big wildfire. We felt strongly from the beginning that was not the case, but these claims continued so we thought the best way to resolve this matter is to ask for an independent, outside group with expertise to conduct a review,” Chief Andy Ware, of the Ohio Department of Forestry said.
The Ohio DOF asked the West Virginia DOF to conduct the investigation.
“They have a dedicated investigation, four-person team. That’s all they do, is investigations, and their specialty is wildfire arson investigations,” Ware said.
Ware said the Ohio DOF provided investigators with information to review the prescribed burn plan, weather data, and the fires on Mackletree Road.
According to the findings reported by the WVDOF, “No evidence was presented to indicate any other ignition source for these fires other than arson.”
The report goes on to read, “The prescribed burn was conducted in accordance with all parameters of the burn plan and within the allowable wind/weather conditions for the day of the burn. Adequate manpower and equipment was on hand to maintain control lines. While some minor break-over was reported it appears these were dealt with in appropriate and expedient manner until the additional arson fires were discovered.”
West Portsmouth Volunteer Firefighter Michael Thompson, of Stout, was charged May 7 with setting the fire. Forestry officials have said Thompson was the man who called in the report on the wildfire, but fled from them when they tried to confront him. They said he was apprehended on Mackletree Road and that he allegedly had accelerants on his person at the time.
On June 23, Scioto County Prosecutor Mark Kuhn said he would submit a dismissal to the court. The court document reads, “This day came the prosecuting attorney, on behalf of the state of Ohio, and in open court, for good cause shown, with leave of court, entered a dismissal without prejudice on the above case. The arresting agency failed to provide a complete investigation report.”
The charges against Thompson were dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could be re-opened.
The April fire that blackened 2,870 acres of Shawnee Forest still stands as the worst forest fire in Ohio history. Ware said the DOF is continuing to investigate the alleged arson with the cooperation of the Scioto County Sheriff, FBI, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Ohio State Highway Patrol, and the Ohio State Fire Marshal’s Office.
“Given the scope of this fire, and the cost and impact to the forest, it is very important to continue on with this investigation. This outside report confirms it was an arson-caused fire that caused significant damage and expense to the state of Ohio,” Ware said.
When asked if he felt this outside review would help quench accusations that the April 24 wildfire in Shawnee Forest was caused by the DOF’s controlled burning, Ware only reaffirmed that the report was “a definitive review from an outside, independent organization, with strong credentials and credibility.”
Cheryl Carpenter, a member of Voices for the Forest, called the review a bogus, political smokescreen intended to derail any real independent investigation.
“All the analysis submitted to the West Virginia Division of Forestry was calculated by Mike Bowden, the burn boss. The very person that would lose his job if this was proved it was an escaped prescribed burn,” she said.
She accused the DOF of employing the “buddy system” by asking another state’s DOF to conduct the investigation, and she points to the lack of prosecuting evidence to support the charge of arson.
“We have been out there and we have investigated both sides of the story, and we have talked to first responders, and it’s completely different than what the Division of Forestry is saying occurred,” Carpenter said.