Tree thieves started a forest fire that ravaged 3,300 acres of protected land, feds say

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CNN's Allison Chinchar explains why wildfire season in the US is lasting longer and burning more acres of land than ever.

Posted: Oct 24, 2019 2:30 PM
Updated: Oct 24, 2019 2:30 PM

Two men attempting to steal bigleaf maple trees started a fire in Washington's Olympic National Forest last year that ravaged more than 3,300 acres of protected land, authorities said.

According to a statement from the US Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington, Justin Wilke and Shawn Williams first went to the national forest in April 2018 to look for "bigleaf maple trees that might contain 'figured' wood, which is highly prized for making musical instruments."

The poachers cut the trees they found and sold the blocks of wood to a lumber mill, claiming that it had been harvested on private land, the Monday statement said.

Wilke and Williams returned for more wood in August 2018, after selling thousands of dollars' worth, the indictment against them said. They found a tree they wanted to steal but there was one problem -- it contained a bees nest.

"Wilke poured gasoline on the nest and lit it on fire," the US Attorney's statement said. "The men tried to put the fire out with water bottles but were unsuccessful."

The blaze sparked what is now known as "The Maple Fire," which burned between August and November 2018 and cost approximately $4.5 million to extinguish, according to the US Attorney's Office.

Wilke was arrested and charged with eight felonies, including conspiracy, theft of public property, depredation of public property, trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, setting timber ablaze and using fire in furtherance of a felony.

He appeared in court in Tacoma on Monday. Efforts to reach his attorney were not successful Tuesday.

Williams is in custody in California and is charged with conspiracy, depredation of government property and attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber. It's not clear whether he has legal representation.

If they are convicted, the men face sentences of five or 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the US Attorney's Office statement said.

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