The Washington State Patrol is searching for the occupants of a vehicle seen leaving one in a series of 12 brush fires spread between Thurston and Mason counties “at a high rate of speed” Wednesday afternoon.
“Because of how evenly those fires were spread all over I-5 from the Lewis County line all the way up Trosper Road and onto 101 into Mason County, it sure looks like one fire started after the other chronologically from south to north,” Trooper Robert Reyer told The Chronicle. “They were still spread far enough to make us believe they could have not caused other fires, and then having this one vehicle that was leaving the second-to-last fire in Thurston County at a high rate of speed when troopers arrived makes it very suspicious. We definitely would like to talk to those people and figure out what happened.”
“If all those fires were set intentionally, each fire would constitute one count of arson,” Reyer aded. “So if the person that made those fires is apprehended, that person is facing 12 counts of arson.”
In Washington state, first-degree arson is a Class A felony punishable by up to life in prison and $50,000 in fines.
Of the 12 fires, six were along Interstate 5, three were in the Thurston County section of U.S. Highway 101 and three more were along Highway 101 in Mason County.
Witnesses described the vehicle seen leaving the brush fire near Mud Bay Road on Highway 101 as a “blue or black box-style SUV,” Reyer said.
Witnesses were unable to provide a license plate number for the vehicle seen leaving the brush fire or detail how many occupants were in the vehicle.
With such a vague description of the vehicle involved, Reyer said the State Patrol is hoping people will be able to find and report someone “bragging” about starting the fires either to their friends or on social media.
“That would be probably the most efficient way to locate the people responsible for it,” Reyer said.
The first fire was reported at 2:50 p.m. in the Scatter Creek area at mile marker 92 along northbound Interstate 5.
“The first arriving crews were instrumental in preventing that fire from spreading,” said Robert Scott, operations chief for the West Thurston Regional Fire Authority.
While temperatures Wednesday were a moderate 70 degrees, Scott said the wind conditions would have caused the fire to spread quickly had initial crews not quickly contained the blaze.
That Scatter Creek fire did spread to an abandoned structure — and could have quickly spread from there to other nearby abandoned structures and nearby residential structures — but fire crews were able to extinguish the fire quickly with help from a helicopter from the state Department of Natural Resources.
The fire was mostly extinguished by the time West Thurston Fire turned the scene over to the Department of Natural Resources at sunset, Scott said.
“We were able to prevent the spread to nearby structures so we don’t have any significant reports of damage to property or other structures,” Reyer said.
That first fire was the only one that threatened structures, according to the state patrol, and wood and grass were the primary materials burned.
One of the fires along I-5 could have spread to nearby fir trees, Reyes said, had a group of “Good Samaritans” with All County Rooter & Repair who happened to be driving a 500-gallon tanker down southbound I-5 when they saw the fire, turned around and worked on extinguishing the fire until crews could arrive.
“They helped significantly,” Reyer said.
In total, more than six different fire agencies were involved in extinguishing the brush fires.
“Those fires were contained pretty quickly because of the great response and cooperation,” Reyer said.
Responding agencies included the West Thurston Regional Fire Authority, South Thurston Fire and EMS, Tumwater Fire and EMS, East Olympia Fire District 6, the Griffin Fire Department, the Black Lake Fire Department, the Washington state Department of Transportation and the state Department of Natural Resources.