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Ronan man charged with arson for Boulder 2700 fire, two others

by Lake County Leader
| May 17, 2022 12:30 PM

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office announced Tuesday that a Ronan man suspected of igniting the Boulder 2700 fire that burned homes and private property last summer is in custody and has been brought up on arson charges.

Craig Allen McCrea, 36, has been incarcerated at the Lake County jail since about May 4 on unrelated drug charges. He now faces three counts of arson for the Boulder 2700 fire and two other fires in the Polson area — the Boulder 2800 fire and Jette Hill fire.

The Boulder 2800 and Jette Hill fires were started in the month prior to the Boulder 2700 fire and caused forestland damage, according to Sheriff Don Bell. The Boulder 2700 fire proved more damaging.

“The Boulder 2700 fire resulted in the emergency evacuation of hundreds of families, burned down more than a dozen homes and other outbuildings, destroyed thousands of acres of forestland, and has created an ongoing hazardous condition on Highway 35, due to destabilizing the vegetation and causing frequent rocks to fall to the road,” Bell said in a press release Tuesday.

Investigators suspected arson as the cause of the Boulder 2700 fire early on, and McCrea has been identified as the sole suspect so far. Bell said the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes' Division of Fire investigators helped connect the other two fires to McCrea.

Detective Dan Yonkin of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office led the investigation. Yonkin collected more than 100 hours of surveillance footage from local residents and businesses in the wake of the Boulder 2700 fire, according to court documents.

Yonkin eventually obtained a warrant for cellular data for a phone that popped up at the site of each fire before the blazes began. The phone's owner later told investigators that she was with McCrea when he lit the fires, according to court documents.

The investigation of the Jette Hill fire on July 9, 2021 suggested that the woman arrived at the Big Arm Resort around midnight. She left the resort shortly after 3 a.m. and drove to the site where the fire was set.

The woman stayed in the area for about 25 minutes before going to a home owned by McCrea’s father, Bob McCrea, who recently retired from CSKT Tribal Fire after serving more than 50 years in wildfire management.

Firefighters quickly extinguished the Jette Hill fire. On site, investigators found drug paraphernalia and a pack of cigarettes. They also found a straw that was sent to the State Crime Lab, which uncovered DNA evidence. The straw tested positive for fentanyl as well.

VIDEO FOOTAGE captured later that month shows a vehicle allegedly connected to Craig McCrea drive past the intersection of U.S. 93 and Montana 35 at about 1:45 a.m. July 16 — the night of the Boulder 2800 fire. It was first reported at about 8 a.m., and crews quickly extinguished it.

The same camera recorded footage of the same car at the same highway intersection shortly before midnight on Aug. 31. Video of the start of the fire shows a single set of headlights moving slowly up the mountain road, then back to the scene of the fire 15 minutes later. The headlights descend the road as the fire blows up behind it at about 2:30 a.m. The same vehicle was spotted back at the highway intersection at 2:40 a.m.

Under questioning by Yonkin, the woman admitted witnessing the start of the three fires, court documents said. She said McCrea ignited the fires with a torch. On each occasion, she said she thought the pair was going into the woods to use drugs, according to court documents.

The woman said she was afraid to tell anyone about the fires because McCrea was physically abusive to her.

Investigators obtained a swab from McCrea for DNA testing and the State Crime Lab matched it to the sample from the straw “to a likelihood of 1 in 425 trillion.”

McCrea is being held on a $1 million bond for three counts of arson. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000.

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