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Camper indicted 18 months after most expensive, destructive Minnesota fire in 80 years

A 64-year-old Washington, D.C., man has been indicted for allowing his campfire on Ham Lake to blow out of control on a windy May day in 2007, triggering Minnesota's largest and most expensive forest fire in 80 years.

A 64-year-old Washington, D.C., man has been indicted for allowing his campfire on Ham Lake to blow out of control on a windy May day in 2007, triggering Minnesota's largest and most expensive forest fire in 80 years.

Stephen George Posniak was indicted Monday by a grand jury in federal court in Minneapolis, some 18 months after the fire raged.

The indictment alleges that on May 5, 2007, Posniak allowed a fire of paper trash and other items to get out of control at his Ham Lake campsite in the Superior National Forest, just outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

The campfire spurred a wildfire that burned across 75,000 acres along the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota and Ontario, cost $11 million to battle and destroyed 150 buildings worth millions of dollars. No one was injured.

Posniak is charged with one count of setting timber afire, one count of leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished and one count of giving false information to a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer. The indictment says Posniak told officers he was camped on Cross Bay Lake, not Ham Lake, the morning of May 5.

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The indictment claims Posniak told officers that he came across the already-started fire when he canoed across Ham Lake.

If convicted, he faces a potential penalty of five years in prison on the first felony count of setting timber afire and six months each for the other misdemeanor counts.

Posniak, reached at his Washington home Tuesday afternoon, said he couldn't talk about the case until after he spoke to his attorney.

He will be ordered to appear before a magistrate judge in Minneapolis within 10 days, at which point he would be allowed to enter an oral plea. A trial date could be set at that time, said David Anderson, public affairs specialist for the U.S. Attorney in Minnesota.

Both Forest Service and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources officers investigated the case, which was presented to the U.S. Attorney in July 2007.

Kris Reichenbach, spokesman for the Superior National Forest, said Forest Service officials had been waiting for the indictment for months but only heard of it Tuesday morning.

"We're pleased to have an outcome for the investigation. We appreciate the effort by the Department of Justice and our staff to get the case this far,'' Reichenbach said Tuesday. "This is the first step now that goes on to a trial, so it's not completely resolved yet.''

It was unclear until now if or when prosecutors would pursue the case. Anderson would not comment on the time it took for the indictment.

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The fire was Minnesota's largest wildfire since the devastating Cloquet fire of 1918. The Ham Lake fire forced the evacuation of hundreds of people and closed the Gunflint Trail area for weeks. More than a year of drought and windy conditions helped fuel the fire, which occurred before new growth could turn the dry, brown landscape to the usual springtime green.

Some of the fire also burned in the blowdown areas hit by the 1999 windstorm, and fire officials credit preparedness since the windstorm for the orderly evacuation, coordinated firefighting effort and lack of any loss of life or major injuries.

Local residents and volunteer firefighters are credited with dozens of heroic efforts to save homes, lodges and outfitters' businesses and cabins.

The fire happened two weeks before the usual tourist and summer cabin season and caught many property owners off guard, before they could take precautions such as starting sprinkler systems on their land.

Volunteers planted hundreds of trees at the fire site in May and most of the burned area turned a lush green this summer with new growth. Many property owners have already rebuilt, though some have decided to sell and move on after the fire charred their waterfront retreats. All businesses and camps have reopened for business, most within days of the fire being snuffed.

Civil penalties also could be imposed to pay damages caused by the fire.

After a 1995 blaze near Saganaga Lake, the U.S. Forest Service claimed campers from a youth camp were responsible for the fire and its damages. The camp's director pleaded guilty and paid a fine for allowing a fire at an illegal campsite. And, facing a $3.8 million civil damages lawsuit, the camp's owner and insurance companies agreed to a $750,000 settlement with the government.

Related Topics: FIRES
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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