Former firefighter convicted second time for arson

The ex-firefighter started 20 fires in 2013 and another in 2016

James Frederick Maw
James Maw

(Originally published at 12:40 p.m. MST January 11, 2018)

Five months after a former seasonal Montana wildland firefighter was given a 40-year suspended sentence for starting 20 wildfires in 2013, he lit another fire in 2016 that burned about an acre on the ranch where he was working.

James Frederick Maw started the first batch of fires in May, 2013. Five of them near York, Montana were managed as the Sweats Complex, with the total number of acres burned listed at 450 with 225 personnel assigned when we reported on the fires and the arrest May 17, 2013. The series of fires in 2013 in the Priest Pass, Spokane Hills, and York areas caused almost $1 million in damages.

The Missoulian reported:

He was arrested [in 2013] in the York-Nelson area in full firefighting gear holding a trigger-operated lighter. He initially said he was a contract firefighter but confessed to starting the fires because he enjoyed the camaraderie of firefighting and needed the financial payoff from fighting fires.

Due to Mr. Maw’s mental health issues his 40-year sentence was suspended by Judge Katherine Seeley.

Below is an excerpt from MTN published November 2, 2015 about the sentencing hearing for the 2013 fires:

However, Lewis & Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher and Broadwater County Attorney Corey Swanson told the court that due to the severity of the crimes — 14 arson fires set in May of 2013 in both counties — require some form of incarceration.

“He threatened the lives of the firefighters in this community,” said Gallagher. “People with homes that were in harm’s way out there, and I just think there needs to be a consequence, your honor, beyond just probation.”

The fire service community also called for prison time.

“Mr. Maw’s statement and his memory lapses give no indication he is either sorry for the lives he put at risk or taking responsibility for his actions,” said Chief [Jordan Alexander of Baxendale Fire].

While still on probation for arson, in April 2016 Mr. Maw was arrested for starting the fire on the ranch. He told investigators the chain saw he was using hit a rock, creating a spark which ignited the fire, but his story did not match the facts uncovered.

After delays for another mental health evaluation, on January 8, 2018 the same judge, Katherine Seeley, sentenced him to 35 years in prison.

Repercussions of a government prescribed fire that escapes and burns private property

In 2010 a prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest escaped and burned approximately 450 acres of private property.

Davis Fire, Aug. 26, 2010
Davis 5 Fire, Aug. 26, 2010. Photo: markholyoak

On August 26 and 27, 2010 the Davis 5 prescribed fire on the Helena National Forest in Montana escaped control 28 miles northwest of Helena. It happened on a windy day during Fire Weather Watch conditions when the temperature in Helena set a record for the highest ever recorded on that date .

(Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “Davis 5 prescribed fire”)

The project that was expected to treat 100 acres eventually burned about 1,600 acres of U.S. Forest Service land and approximately 450 acres of private property.

Today the Helena Independent Record and the Missoulian published an article written by Tim Kuglin that retells the story of the Davis 5 Fire. Mr. Kuglin concentrated on the effects on the private landowners and their battles, largely unsuccessful, to obtain reparations from the federal government.

The post-fire report commissioned by the U.S. Forest Service, as is the custom with federal land management reports about fires that have bad outcomes, did not outline many significant issues or bad decisions that led to the escape.

Davis fire
Firemen line the Stemple Pass Road August 26, 2010, on the Davis Fire. Dylan Brown photo.

Most of Kent Taylor’s 146 acres burned in the fire. After being rebuffed by the USFS he went to court to seek payment for damages. Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell decided on March 22, 2015 that the U.S. is immune from the suit, writing in his decision:

The Court concludes that Plaintiff has failed to demonstrate that the Forest Service was negligent either in conducting the Davis 5 Unit prescribed burn or in fighting the escaped fire once it occurred or that the Forest Service violated any mandatory policy or prescription. In addition, and more significantly, strict liability does not apply and the discretionary function exception applies to bar Plaintiff’s tort claims.

The court decision, the official USFS report, and the recent newspaper article did not seriously consider two issues that we mentioned in 2010:

1. The first was the failure to take notice of the spot weather forecast that was issued at 10:43 a.m. Wednesday on the day of the burn, just before the firefighters ignited the test burn. That forecast predicted stronger winds than in the forecast that was issued the previous day which was for “winds upslope 3 to 6 mph, ridge top winds southwest 5 to 10 mph with gusts to 15 mph”. Here is what Wednesday morning’s forecast predicted for the day of ignition (the all-caps are from the weather forecast):

WIND (20 FT)……..SOUTHWEST WINDS 10 TO 15 MPH WITH AFTERNOON GUSTS 20 TO 25 MPH.
RIDGE TOP WIND……WEST AT 15 TO 20 MPH.

The report says:

The prescribed fire personnel stated they did not note any differences between the two forecasts.

That forecast also stated that on the following day, Thursday, the winds in the afternoon would be 30 to 35 mph.  The maximum wind speed allowed in the prescription for the project was 15 mph, which, from my experience, is quite high for a prescribed fire.

2. The second issue is the fact that they knew on Tuesday, the day before the burn began on Wednesday, that near record heat and a Fire Weather Watch with gusty southwest winds was forecast for Thursday. This Watch was upgraded to a Red Flag Warning on Wednesday afternoon after ignition had begun. Even in a best case scenario, if there had been no spot fires or other control problems on Wednesday, the 30 to 35 mph winds predicted for the day after ignition should have alerted experienced fire management personnel that the winds across the 100-acre prescribed fire could have caused embers to be blown across the lines, resulting in the fire escaping. Control would have been difficult in 30 to 35 mph winds.

Rain and snow affect some fires in the Northwest — but not all

Wildfires are still active in California, Oregon, Washington, and northwest Montana. Red Flag Warning for northern Nevada.

Above: Indigo Fire in southwest Oregon, September 17, 2017. It is being managed by the East Zone of the Chetco Bar Fire. Inciweb.

(Originally published at 1 a.m. MDT September 18, 2017)

The precipitation that hit areas in the northern Rockies last week has slowed or in some cases temporarily halted, perhaps, the spread of some of the wildfires, many of which had been burning for more than a month. Higher elevations in portions of western Montana received snow, a significant amount in a few areas.

Most of Montana and eastern Idaho had over half an inch of precipitation, but extreme northwest Montana, northwest California, northern Idaho, and most of Oregon and Washington received very little.

Estimated precipitation received for the 7-day period ending Sunday Evening, September 17, 2017.

For example, some evacuations are still in effect for the West Fork Fire in northwest Montana north of Libby. But in the photo below firefighters on the Blacktail Fire northeast of Bozeman look like they are on a winter snow adventure.

Blacktail fire snow Montana
Firefighters on the Blacktail Fire, 48 miles northeast of Bozeman. Photo by Jade Martin.

Many of the wildfires in extreme northwest California and the Cascades of Oregon and Washington are still active. The satellite photo of that area is the most recent we could find that was at least partially free of clouds. On Friday smoke plumes were still very visible from hundreds of miles overhead.

satellite photo fires northwest united states
Satellite photo of the northwest United States, September 15, 2017. The red dots represent heat that the satellite was able to detect where the clouds were not too thick. NASA.

Continue reading “Rain and snow affect some fires in the Northwest — but not all”

Five pieces of equipment burned in Sheep Gap Fire

Five pieces of equipment burned Tuesday September 12 in the Sheep Gap Fire near Thompson Falls, Montana. Irv Leach, the Incident Commander whose Incident Management Team had just arrived at the fire, said two Temco feller bunchers, one dozer, a skidder and a pickup truck burned when firefighters and operators were forced to abandon the area as the fire spread toward their location.

Mr. Leach said in a news release:

As the afternoon progressed, the temperature and wind began to increase; relative humidity began to decrease and the fire became very active. Because of the very low fuel moistures and poor humidity recovery from the night before, the fire became active and burned very rapidly. This fire condition and rates of spread made it unsafe for firefighters and equipment operators to remain. A safety decision was made to abandon the operation and retreat to established safety zones.

Thankfully there were no injuries, but the equipment did not fare as well, as you can see in the photos below.

Since the Sheep Gap Fire started August 28, it has burned over 20,000 acres.

Rain slows wildfires in Northern Rockies and South Dakota

Above: Precipitation received at RAWS weather stations in northwest Montana in the 24 hours before 9:42 a.m. September 15, 2017. The amounts range from a few hundredths to almost half an inch.

Western Montana and the northern Great Plains are receiving some much needed moisture that will slow the spread of dozens of large fires in the area, some of which have been burning for more than a month and a half.

The Rice Ridge Fire has spread over 155,000 acres just east of Seeley Lake 35 miles northeast of Missoula, Montana since it was discovered July 24. The incident management team reported Thursday evening that the east side of the fire had received a quarter of an inch of rain. A weather station just northeast of the community of Seeley Lake recorded 0.05″ overnight, and the forecast calls for another quarter of an inch at that location on Friday.

A weather station near the 53,000-acre Lolo Peak Fire south of Missoula recorded 0.16″.

weather cam nine mile
A weather cam view at Nine Mile on Interstate 90 west of Missoula, 8:30 a.m. September 15, 2017.

Some of the higher elevations in western Montana are receiving snow.

weather cam homestake pass
A weather cam view at Homestake Pass, 6,329′ elevation, on Interstate 90 southeast of Butte, MT, 9:08 a.m. September 15, 2017.

Firefighters are “backhauling” equipment on the Rice Ridge Fire, collecting items that are no longer needed and taking them back to the incident base, such as fire hose, water pumps, and portable tanks.

Most of the weather stations in the southern Black Hills where the Beaver and Rankin Fires are burning have received about a third of an inch of rain as of 10 a.m. on Friday, but one station northeast of Newcastle, WY measured almost three-quarters of an inch. Some firefighting resources, including crews and engines, were released from these two fires late in the day Thursday.

Red Flag Warning in western Montana to be followed by rain and snow

Red Flag Warning September 13, 2017
Red Flag Warning September 13, 2017.

Residents of western Montana and northern Idaho can expect to see some relief from the drought and wildfire smoke that have plagued the area for many weeks.

Following a Red Flag Warning that is in effect Wednesday for southwest Montana, precipitation is in the forecast for Thursday night and Friday. The National Weather Service has issued a Winter Storm Watch for parts of western Montana.

Winter Storm Watch western Montana
A Winter Storm Watch for western Montana ends at 12 p.m. Friday, September 15.

The storm system will move into the northern Rockies on Thursday and Friday bringing rain and snow to the region. Some of the higher elevations could receive one to six inches of snow while the lower elevations can expect rain. The Lolo Peak Fire south of Missoula, for example, could get over one-half inch of rain.

weather forecast Thursday and Friday
Forecast by Accuweather for Thursday and Friday.