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Man faces 20 years to life for starting back burns he says were meant to save neighbors’ property from wildfire

Two men that say they were just trying to help their friends protect property as an enormous wildfire closed in are facing serious prison time. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

A man is defending his actions after he was charged with two counts of first-degree arson for starting unauthorized back burns in what he says was an attempt to save his neighbors’ properties as wildfires approached.

Keith Strickland, 60, of Twisp, was one of two men arrested. He tells KIRO Radio that he and his friend, 63-year-old Larry Smith, who was also arrested, have years of experience fighting fires.

“We’ve been fighting fire together probably for 40 plus years,” says Strickland. “We normally contract with the government and stuff, but there was some kind of glitch in our contract so we didn’t have one. We had friends calling us saying, ‘Hey, our houses are going to burn, these guys aren’t sticking around.’ So we decided we’d go out and do what we could to help save some of the people we know.”

Setting a back burn ahead of a fire is a technique used to stop wildfires from spreading. Strickland says one of the back burns they set was started at the request of the homeowner and they probably saved five or six houses as a result.

But Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers tells KIRO Radio the conditions were not safe to be setting any additional fires and the men had been warned not to do it.

“I’m not a firefighter and I can guarantee that was not a day you would go around lighting fires, the conditions as hot as it was, the wind was blowing so hard, there was no way to control these things,” says Rogers. “Usually, it’s a controlled event where it gets pulled back into the main fire, that’s the whole point of a back burn, to take the fuels away. It didn’t work. That’s why they were charged with arson in all three cases.”

The sheriff claims that firefighters and properties were put in danger because of these unauthorized back burns. He says one homeowner was so upset about the burns that he actually reported the two suspects to the sheriff, and tried to get evidence.

“The homeowner actually took pictures of them while they were out there, and actually they burned this homeowner’s land, so he has photographs that we have as evidence,” says Rogers.

He says it’s not unusual for people in the area to take firefighting into their own hands, but setting back burns is not a typical thing residents do.

“Most of them don’t go set back burn fires. What they’ll do is they’ll get on their tractors. I’ve seen them get out and do cat lines through their property. They’ll do what they can to put up a fire break. We’re not going to stop them. Actually, we’ll go and help them if we can,” says Rogers.

Strickland faces 20 years to life in prison if he’s convicted on both counts of first degree arson. He has a court appearance Aug. 25, but says he’s not sure how he’s going to cover the legal costs. He may have to mortgage his house.

“Small town people like us don’t have the money for the big, good lawyers. I’m not sure what I’m going to do,” says Strickland.

KIRO Radio’s Ron Upshaw says he can understand both sides of this case. He says the sheriff is hired to maintain laws in effect, so if someone is doing unauthorized burns, they need to be arrested. But he says if these guys are really qualified, but for whatever reason didn’t have the proper credentials this year, they should present proof of their past experience to a judge and that should make a difference.

“Any reasonable judge is going to look at that and go OK, you are qualified, the cop was right to arrest you, but I’m right to let you go.”

“I sure hope that guy doesn’t spend the rest of his life in jail,” says co-host Don O’Neil. “I think that’s a little ridiculous.”

KIRO Radio’s Kim Shepard, Libby Denkmann, Jamie Skorheim and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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