Ham Lake Fire Indictment

     The word is out on the Gunflint Trail and all over the nation.  Steve Posniak is responsible for starting the Ham Lake Fire on the 5th of May 2007.  It’s odd to finally have the name of the guilty person confirmed and made public. 

      I’m not sure what difference it makes knowing Steve Posniak started the Ham Lake Fire.  It doesn’t bring back the trees, cabins or vistas that were lost during the fire.  It can’t turn back the clock and change the fact we were evacuated from our house for weeks.  It doesn’t give us back our telephone service we didn’t have for May and June or the business we lost due to the fire.  I doubt it will make my forest fire nightmares go away.  The horrific experience of the Ham Lake Fire caused more stress and trauma then I hope I will ever experience again.  Steve Posniak or Joe Blow, what does it matter?

     The Ham Lake Fire started because Steve Posniak wasn’t following rules about what to burn and he didn’t make sure his fire was dead out before he left it unattended.  I have burned paper and I have left hot coals in a campfire ring and I have been lucky.  Conditions in May of 2007 were perfect for a forest fire.  The forest was dry, the wind wanted to blow and a fire was going to start sooner or later.  It just happened to start sooner.  Too soon for cabin owners to be back up at their cabins, too soon for sprinkler systems to be in the water with propane on and ready to go but late enough that the ice was off of the lakes.  Thank Goodness.

     We were lucky during the Ham Lake Fire because no lives were lost and no serious injuries occurred.  Steve Posniak didn’t try to set the forest on fire and I don’t think he wanted to see the Gunflint Trail go up in smoke.  My guess is he has been punishing himself since that awful day when the fire started and he’s been feeling guilty ever since.  Will proving he’s guilty or punishing him make a difference?

     Maybe or maybe not, what would you do if you were the judge? 

“From the Star Tribune of Minneapolis”

DULUTH – A retired federal employee from Washington has been indicted on charges of causing one of the worst wildfires in Minnesota history while on one of his regular spring camping trips to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness last year.



The indictment announced Tuesday in Minneapolis accuses Stephen George Posniak, 64, of failing to completely extinguish a campfire before leaving his Ham Lake campsite on May 5, 2007. Fanned by hot, dry winds, the fire ignited woods on the northwest side of the lake and raced out of control.



By the time the wildfire was extinguished a week later, it had become Minnesota’s most destructive since 1918, burning 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario , consuming 138 structures on the American side alone and racking up about $11 million in fire-fighting costs.



The three-count grand jury indictment filed in U.S. District Court on Monday also accuses Posniak of giving false information to two investigators from the Superior National Forest . He is accused of falsely telling them that he had camped on Cross Bay Lake and falsely claiming that the fire already was burning out of control when he first encountered it while paddling through Ham Lake the next morning.



"In truth and in fact," the three-page indictment says, "as the defendant knew, he camped overnight on Ham Lake on the evening of May 4, 2007, and he started a paper trash fire at his Ham Lake campsite on the morning of May 5, 2007, that spread to nearby [forest]."



Reached at his home in Washington , Posniak, a retired information technology expert for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, declined to comment. His attorney, Mark Larsen, of Minneapolis, said Posniak will plead not guilty at his arraignment, scheduled for Nov. 6 before a U.S. District Court magistrate in Duluth .



Larsen said his client "has known of the investigation for in excess of a year," and has cooperated. "He’s a straight-forward guy," Larsen said. "He will voluntarily appear, and we will be prepared to defend the case on the merits, in the courtroom."



Asked whether he expects the federal government to try to collect some or all of the firefighting costs from Posniak, Larsen said the mention by prosecutors of the $11 million in firefighting costs in the indictment itself is a sign they may seek restitution. A news release from the U.S. attorney’s office said Posniak faces a potential maximum penalty of six years in prison.



No fire ban



David Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, declined to say what led investigators to focus on Posniak. Users of the BWCA are required to obtain permits indicating their entry points, and such permit records would have allowed investigators a ready list of campers to question. Ham Lake lies just outside the BWCA, but Cross Bay Lake lies within it.



The indictment said Posniak told investigators he traveled through Ham Lake on the way to Tuscarora Lodge. Sue Ahrendt, who owns Tuscarora Lodge with her husband, Andy, declined Tuesday to say whether Posniak had been a customer or if they know him.



"I just don’t know if we should say anything," she said.



According to the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, heavy smoke from what turned out to be the Ham Lake fire was reported simultaneously by Gunflint Trail resident Mary Bade and Jesse Derscheid, of Hovland. Ahrendt said Derscheid, who works for a fuel dealer, was talking to her husband outside the lodge when they noticed the smoke, and Derscheid used his company’s two-way radio to report it.



Although ice still remained on back bays of lakes, the woods had dried out quickly that spring, and residents had been on edge, watching for signs of fire as conditions grew hotter and drier, Ahrendt said. Campfires weren’t banned in the area at that point, although Superior National Forest officials said after the Ham Lake fire started that conditions had been growing dry enough that they would have issued a temporary ban soon.



A love of the BWCA



Though Posniak declined to be interviewed, Internet postings reveal some details about his life and his connections to Minnesota and the BWCA. In April 2007, just two weeks before the Ham Lake fire, a posting from "Steve Posniak of Washington D.C. " appeared on a "Prairie Home Companion" electronic bulletin board for people interested in taking a cruise of the Norwegian coastline.



"I am a male, 62, married, with one daughter," he wrote. "I am an IT security geek (just retired from the feds last year and working part-time) … I have a BS from Dartmouth College and MA from the University of Minnesota .



"I have been hooked on PHC [Prairie Home Companion] since 1978. I still go canoeing in the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area every May, right after the ice melts but before the flies and fishermen come out, so I can share it with the moose and loons."



Postings to other sites in the Washington area indicate Posniak served on several public boards and commissions in his northwest Washington neighborhood, dealing with transportation and other local issues.



Past prosecution for a fire



In 1995, the manager of Gunflint Wilderness Camp paid a $2,000 fine after pleading guilty to misdemeanors in connection with another human-caused wildfire near Saganaga Lake . Investigators determined that the fire, which burned more than 13,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario , began with a fire left smoldering by teenage campers. Following the prosecution, the U.S. attorney’s office in Minneapolis filed a $3.8 million suit against the camp to recover the cost of fighting the fire.



The suit was settled for $750,000.



Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504