Men charged with starting fire while stealing trees from Olympic National Forest

Men charged with starting fire while stealing trees from Olympic National Forest

Photo shows 37-year-old Justin Wilke, one of the two men charged with starting the Maple Fire in the Olympic National Forest in August 2018.

Two former Hood Canal men were charged with eight federal felonies, accused of cutting down and selling trees that were on Olympic National Forest land and starting a forest fire in the process.

One of the men, 37-year-old Justin Andrew Wilke, faced a judge in Tacoma on Monday. The other man, Shawn Edward Williams, is in custody in California on an unrelated charge.

Wilke and Williams went to Olympic National Forest as early as April 2018 to look for big leaf maple trees that might contain wood highly prized for musical instruments, charges from the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Washington said.

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Prosecutors said the men looked for trees in the Elk Lake and Lena Lake areas. They then felled the trees, cut blocks of wood from them and sold the blocks to a lumber mill in Tumwater.

Authorities said the men gave the mill owner permits saying the maple trees had been taken from private land.

Charges said that, in early August 2018, Wilke and Williams found a tree they wanted to steal, but there was a wasp nest in it.

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The men first used wasp killer on the nest but when that didn't work, Wilke poured gas on the nest and lit it on fire, documents said. The men then tried to put the fire out with bottles of water, but it grew into a 3,300-acre forest fire, known as the Maple Fire, that cost $4.5 million to put out, officials said.

Prosecutors claim that, while the fire was still burning, Wilke, whose social media profile lists his job as woodcutter, abandoned his home in Lilliwap, moving to a remote location on Harstein island where he was tracked down and arrested last week.

Wilke was charged with conspiracy, two counts of depredation of public property, theft of public property, trafficking and attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber, setting timber afire, and using fire in furtherance of a felony.

Williams was charged with conspiracy, depredation of government property each and attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber.

Conspiracy, setting timber afire and trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber each carry a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.  Theft of public property and depredation of government property have a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.  Using fire in furtherance of a felony carries a mandatory 10-year prison sentence.

After pleading not guilty to eight counts, Wilke was ordered held in detention while he awaits trial.