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Lewis County prosecutor explains reason for birdhouse fire charges

The birdhouse-turned-hornet-nest to which Matt Buchanan set fire. (Lewis County Sheriff's Office)

The story of a Lewis County man facing a year in jail and $10,000 fine for setting fire to a birdhouse with a hornet nest in it on his own six-acre property sparked outrage among Dori’s listeners last week.

Matt Buchanan, who lives near Centralia and has no previous criminal history, told Dori that in order to get rid of the wasps, he burned a paper towel inside the birdhouse, then extinguished the fire with a garden hose before going to bed around 10 p.m. on June 4.

But according to Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer, firefighters had reason to be concerned when arriving at the home (in response to a neighbor’s report of a fire), because they noticed that the fire was still smoldering without anyone outdoors keeping an eye on it.

“When law enforcement arrived, they had a hard time waking [Buchanan] up, which is what, I think, led to the charges,” Meyer said. “Had he been outside with the hose, monitoring the fire, monitoring what was happening, I think there would have been a much different outcome.”

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He said that law enforcement and firefighters were further concerned when Buchanan admitted to having been drinking and at first said he didn’t know who started the fire.

“All of that led law enforcement to the conclusion that they believed a crime had been committed, and that’s why they issued him a citation,” Meyer said.

Buchanan has been charged with second-degree reckless burning, a non-felony charge that the Lewis County Sheriff’s Office filed.

“Under reckless burning, it doesn’t matter if it did cause damage, it’s that it could have caused damage,” Meyer said. “And the fact that it’s next to a fence, which was next to a hay field, is what led to the charges in this case.”

While the maximum sentence for a second-degree reckless burning charge is 364 days in jail and a $10,000 fine, it is unlikely Buchanan will see much jail time, if any. More likely, Meyer said, if convicted, Buchanan’s jail sentence would be suspended and he would be given certain rules to stick to, including no additional criminal violations within a year.

The topic got heated online when Dori’s listeners pointed out the hypocrisy of a man being cited for starting a fire on his own property, while Seattle homeless encampment residents appear to get away with accidentally setting brush fires.

Meyer said that in Lewis County, however, prosecution does not favor any groups.

“Just like any other community, we have a drug problem — I will say that we address it much differently than King County does,” he said.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from 12-3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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