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More arson suspects arrested in Okanogan fires

Wed., Aug. 13, 2014, 10 a.m.

Two more arrests were made in Okanogan County on suspicion of helping spread the devastating fire that scorched much of the Methow Valley last month, bringing the total number of people in custody to three.

Keith Strickland, 60, of Twisp, was charged with arson on Monday for allegedly lighting a “back burn” — a fire intended to slow a wildfire’s growth by burning off brush in its path – and then losing control of it. Firefighters had told Strickland specifically not to start any fires because only officials were authorized to light back burns to protect structures, Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said.

Crews then watched Strickland light the fire, which damaged neighboring property on Benson Creek Road and property owned by the U.S. Forest Service, police said. He was booked on Monday on suspicion of first-degree arson.

Last month, police arrested Radley Hastings, 62, of Chelan, and Larry Smith, 63, of Twisp for attempting to use back burns to protect their properties. Both were charged with first-degree arson.

Smith, who police arrested in July after neighbors took photos showing him help Strickland light the fire on Benson Creek Road, was charged with a second arson charge on Tuesday for allegedly lighting another fire on Finley Canyon and Konrad Road.

Hastings had lit a fire that “went the wrong way” and nearly trapped a group of firefighters, who then called law enforcement.

First-degree arson, under Washington law, punishes those who “knowingly and maliciously” cause “a fire or explosion which is manifestly dangerous to any human life, including firefighters.” It’s a Class A felony that carries the possibility of life in prison and $50,000 fine.

The Carlton Complex burned nearly 500 structures, including 325 homes.

At more than 400 square miles, the fires burned an area more than four times as big as all the other wildfires in Washington combined, according to updated figures provided by the state this week.



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