Think of it as a different sort of sting operation.
Two former Hood Canal-area residents have been indicted on eight federal felony counts stemming from an effort to burn a bees nest that was interfering with their attempts to illegally harvest a valuable maple tree in the Olympic National Forest. Their attempt to burn the beehive resulted in a forest fire that consumed 3,300 acres and cost $4.5 million to fight, according to an indictment unsealed Monday.
The indictment alleges that, between April and August 2018, Justin Andrew Wilke and Shawn Edward Williams were involved in cutting down and selling old-growth big-leaf maple trees on public land. These trees often contain what is called “figured” wood, which is coveted by luthiers for its often spectacular grain used for guitars, violins and other stringed instruments.
The indictment alleges that in August 2018 the men attempted to take a large maple tree in the Olympic National Forest that contained a bees nest, making it particularly tricky to cut down. Their solution was for Wilke to pour gasoline on the nest and light it on fire. The blaze quickly ran out of control — despite their efforts to douse it with water bottles — and the resulting conflagration, known as the Maple Fire, burned out of control for several days, according to the federal charges.
That tree was just one of several the two men had scouted and cut down in the area around Elk Lake and Lena Lake, according to the indictments. They would cut down the trees, carve out large blocks of finely figured wood and take them to a property near Lilliwaup, Mason County, where they were then sold to a lumber mill in Tumwater, according to the indictment. The men purportedly presented the mill owner with falsified permits showing the wood had been harvested from private property.
The indictment alleges the men had sold thousands of dollars’ worth of big-leaf maple wood to the mill owner when Wilke and Williams identified the large maple tree that was buzzing with bees that had nested in its trunk. Initially, according to the indictment, the men attempted to use wasp killer before deciding to torch the nest.
The Maple Fire burned out of control for at least four days and then continued to burn and smolder within its containment lines until it was doused by seasonal rains. At one point, there were as many as 82 firefighters involved. Two helicopters from the Washington Air National Guard also assisted with firefighting efforts. The blaze closed popular trailheads at Jefferson Ridge and Hamma Hamma Road for several days.
Wilke, who was arrested Monday and is in custody at the federal detention center in SeaTac, is charged with eight federal felonies: Conspiracy; two counts of depredation of public property; theft of public property; trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber; attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber; setting timber afire; and using fire in furtherance of a felony, a crime that carries a mandatory 10-year prison sentence, according to federal prosecutors.
Williams, who is in custody in California, is charged with conspiracy, depredation of government property, and attempted trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber.
Neither were represented by lawyers as of Monday, according to court records.
Conspiracy, setting timber afire, and trafficking in unlawfully harvested timber are each punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Theft of public property and depredation of government property are punishable by up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine.