Tacoma: Conviction in timber theft that led to 2018 forest fire

TACOMA, Wash. — A Tacoma jury convicted a man on Thursday for his part in a scheme to steal maple wood that resulted in a massive forest fire on the Olympic Peninsula that consumed 3,300 acres in 2018.

Justin Andrew Wilke, 39, was convicted after seven hours of jury deliberations.

According to a press release from the United States Department of Justice, Wilke took part in an illegal logging operation in the Elk Lake area of the Olympic National Forest near Hood Canal between April and August 2018.

Wilke claimed the wood he sold to a mill in Tumwater came from a private property with a valid permit; however, DNA evidence from the lumber was a genetic match to the remains of three poached trees in the Elk Lake area.

The DNA analysis was so precise that the probability of the match being coincidental was one in one undecillion (or 1 followed by 36 zeroes).

This is the first time tree DNA has been used as evidence in a federal criminal trial.

On Aug. 3, 2018, a wasp’s nest near the base of a maple tree was sprayed with insecticide and gasoline, then lit on fire, according to the press release.

The fire was not extinguished and developed into the blaze, later named the “Maple Fire,” which consumed more than 3,300 acres between August and November 2018.

The forest fire cost $4.2 million to contain.

Wilke’s conviction is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.