Man charged with causing 2007 Ham Lake forest fire

Fighting at night
A firefighter tries to subdue the blaze along the Gunflint Trail in northeastern Minnesota in 2007.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Incident Command System

A federal grand jury has indicted a Washington D.C. man in connection with last year's Ham Lake fire, which burned 75,000 acres of forest along the Gunflint Trail in northeast Minnesota.

The indictment charges Stephen Posniak, 64, with setting a fire, leaving that fire unattended, and lying to Forest Service officers.

Posniak camped overnight on Ham Lake the evening of May 4, 2007, and started a paper trash fire the next morning that spread to nearby timber, underbrush and grass, the indictment alleges. He left the fire unattended without extinguishing it completely, it says.

He also falsely told U.S. Forest Service officers that he had camped on Cross Bay Lake, not Ham Lake, and that he encountered the fire already burning out of control at a Ham Lake campsite the morning of May 5 as he canoed back through Ham Lake to Tuscarora Lodge, a resort and outfitter on the Gunflint Trail.

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The Ham Lake Fire burned for more than a week, blackening about 57 square miles of the Superior National Forest in and near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area plus about 61 square miles across the border in Ontario. It cost around $11 million to put out.

It was rated the most destructive forest fire in Minnesota since 1918. It damaged or destroyed some 140 structures worth about $4 million on the Minnesota side, including 10 year-round homes, according to Forest Service figures, but nobody was killed or seriously injured.

Firefighters were able to save 759 structures worth about $42 million, thanks in part to sprinkler systems installed by landowners beforehand.

"We are pleased to be moving into the next phase of this case and appreciate the careful and thorough investigation of the U.S. attorney's office working with our Forest Service law enforcement staff," Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, said in a prepared statement.

Posniak is not in custody. He will be issued a summons, said David Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office.

Posniak said he would defer any comment to his attorney after they had a chance to speak, but he would not reveal the name of that attorney.

The maximum potential sentence on the first count of setting timber afire would be five years in prison. The maximum is six months on the two other counts -- leaving a fire unattended and unextinguished, and giving false information to a Forest Service officer.

The actual sentence, if Posniak is convicted, would be up to the judge.