By Mark Davis, Powell Tribune
A Bridger, Montana, man was arrested Wednesday on allegations that he started the 28,600-acre Robertson Draw Fire while off-trail on his motorcycle.
John Lightburn, 55, faces felony and misdemeanor counts of negligent arson which allege he put people’s lives and property in danger by “purposely or knowingly” starting the wildfire. A misdemeanor count of criminal mischief alleges that Lightburn operated his motorcycle in an area of the Custer Gallatin National Forest that’s closed to motorized vehicles and damaged public lands.
According to charging documents from Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon, Lightburn had been riding his motorbike on the morning of June 13 when the vehicle became flooded. As he tried to fix the cycle, Lightburn reportedly spilled gas “all over.” A subsequent attempt to see if he was getting a spark from his sparkplug set the nearby gasoline and surrounding vegetation ablaze, charging documents say.
Amid the hot, dry conditions, the Robertson Draw Fire quickly spread over the next few days, threatening the towns of Red Lodge and Bearcreek and burning 21 structures — including at least eight homes. Crews have been on scene battling the wildland fire, which has consumed a large area between Line Creek, north of Clark, to Mount Maurice, just west of Red Lodge.
Nixon said the fire’s rapid growth on June 15 “created dangerous conditions for both firefighters and local residents.” The prosecutor said that at least one law enforcement officer “was almost overtaken by the fire” while helping to evacuate residents and escorting them through the flame front.
“Damage to public and private property and the associated firefighting efforts, which are ongoing, have caused loss in the millions of dollars,” Nixon wrote.
According to what Lightburn told authorities, the fire started around 10 a.m. on June 13. It was reported to authorities around 2:30 p.m. and Lightburn was reportedly seen walking out of the fire area with burns around 4:30 p.m.
He was picked up by a retired investigator and delivered to U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement Officer Katrina Haworth, who was responding to the scene after receiving reports of the fire.
Lightburn reported burning his foot in an attempt to extinguish the fire. However, Haworth did not observe any efforts to extinguish the fire while investigating the scene, though she did find Lightburn’s burned motorcycle and a few tools.
As of Wednesday evening, Lightburn was being held at the Gallatin County Detention Center, with bond set at $7,500.
(CJ Baker contributed reporting.)