TACOMA — A forest fire that burned 3,300 acres near Brinnon in 2018 was caused by maple poachers who poured gasoline on a bees’ nest, a federal indictment stated.
Justin Andrew Wilke, 37, and Shawn Edward Williams, 48, were arrested for allegedly poaching big leaf maple trees on U.S. Forest Service land and starting the Maple Fire on Aug. 3, 2018.
The fire southwest of Brinnon near the Mason-Jefferson County line burned for nearly three months and cost $4.5 million to contain, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said Monday.
Wilke pleaded not guilty Monday to two counts of depredation of public property and single counts of conspiracy, theft of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, setting timber afire and using fire in furtherance of a felony.
His trial was set for Dec. 3, U.S. Attorney’s Office spokeswoman Emily Langlie said.
Williams, who is in state custody in California, is charged with conspiracy, depredation of government property and attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, Langlie said.
He has not yet been arraigned on the federal felony charges.
The indictment charging Wilke and Williams was filed Aug. 28 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington at Tacoma.
The U.S. Forest Service alleged that Wilke, Williams and others had illegally harvested big leaf maple in Olympic National Forest beginning April 25, 2018.
Some big leaf maple trees develop patterned wood that is highly prized for woodworking, particularly for making musical instruments, according to the indictment signed by U.S. Attorney Brian Moran.
Wilke and Williams, who lived in the Hood Canal area, allegedly cut the felled trees into rounds or blocks and sold them to a Tumwater mill under the false pretense that the wood had been cut on private land under permit, the indictment said.
The “figured wood” was cut near Lena Lake in Jefferson County and Elk Lake in Mason County and sold for about $13,400 in the months leading up to the fire, court papers said.
On Aug. 3, Wilke, Williams and an unknown person listed as “Person 2” in the indictment found a figured maple near the Elk Lake lower trailhead in Mason County.
They determined that a bees’ nest made it “difficult or impossible” to fell the tree.
“After unsuccessfully attempting to remove the bees with wasp killer, Wilke, Williams and Person 2 agreed that Wilke would kill the bees by burning the nest,” the indictment said.
“Wilke poured gasoline onto the nest and lit the nest and tree on fire. Wilke, Williams and Person 2 unsuccessfully attempted to extinguish the fire using water bottles.”
The Maple Fire burned or damaged about 3,300 acres of public land in the Hamma Hamma River Valley and produced smoke that drifted around Western Washington.
An incident command center was established in Brinnon before operations were moved Aug. 8, 2018, to a larger facility near Shelton.
A U.S. Forest Service officer questioned Wilke about the fire and his timber-poaching activity Aug. 4, 2018, the indictment said.
“Wilke falsely told the law enforcement officer that he had not been cutting timber, did not have a chain saw, and did not know anything about the fire,” the indictment said.
“Wilke concealed his chain saw to prevent it from being discovered by investigators.”
Conspiracy, setting timber afire and trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber are each punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Theft of public property and depredation of government property are punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Using fire in furtherance of a felony is punishable by a mandatory 10-year prison sentence, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
The case is being prosecuted by assistant U.S. Attorneys Seth Wilkinson and Will Dreher.
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56450, or at [email protected].