Forest Lake firefighter John Berken seemed the classic hometown hero. The mayor honored him with a Lifesaving Award. A former Chamber of Commerce chairwoman on Tuesday remembered Berken, a former chamber board member, as "a good guy, a nice guy, fun to be around."

But Berken's reputation, since tarnished by financial and legal problems, seemed as clouded Tuesday as the billows of smoke that hovered over Anoka County just hours before. Berken, 40, was arrested on suspicion of starting and then returning to fight Monday's fire that burned more than 2.3 square miles of the Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area in Columbus.

A day after 200 firefighters extinguished wind-swept blazes that turned cattails and lowland grass into charred stubble, members of the Department of Natural Resources trudged through the smoke and ashes, assessing the damage. Gov. Tim Pawlenty summoned the National Guard to provide air assistance to fight the fire.

Authorities said Tuesday that Berken denied setting a fire.

Officials declined to speculate on a possible motive. Volunteer firefighters such as Berken are paid for on-call services, Forest Lake Fire Chief Gary Sigfrinius said. Forest Lake firefighters said they were told not to discuss their colleague or his alleged role in the fire.

The Anoka County attorney's office, which has until noon today to charge Berken, sorted through investigators' reports, while Berken's old acquaintances searched for answers. "You wouldn't expect this of anyone, but especially not of John Berken," said Daree Selby, who was chairwoman of the Forest Lake Area Chamber of Commerce when Berken ran a local Ford dealership and was on the chamber board.

"He was very involved, a community guy. This doesn't fit with who he was three years ago."

From honors to a lawsuit

That was the John Berken, a firefighter for only a year when in 2006 he was given an award by the Forest Lake mayor and City Council for pulling a man out of the St. Croix River in January. But last year, Berken was taken to court by American Express, which alleged in a federal lawsuit that Berken used the Forest Lake Ford dealership's charge card to obtain more than $4 million in cash and failed to repay more than $3.8 million of it.

According to the civil suit, Berken and the company made 48 credit charges against the dealership's merchant account -- a "flagrant violation" of the cardholder agreement. The Ford dealership filed for bankruptcy and is no longer in business.

"He's had a lot of bad press over the past 12 months or so, but I had no negatives against John because when I knew him, he tried to do so much for the community," said Bob Schmidt, a board member of the Forest Lake chamber.

"I don't know why the change all the sudden. Most people familiar with John are very surprised by what we're hearing about the fire."

Word of Berken's arrest spread quickly Tuesday, but perhaps not as quickly as the flames that engulfed the wildlife preserve, which attracts all kinds of waterfowl, including the sandhill cranes that swooped near DNR forest officer Jason Kern and his crew Tuesday.

"The positive for us is that nobody got hurt; everybody has a home to go back to," Kern said.

Meanwhile, a handful of other grass fires happened Monday north of the Twin Cities. Spring Lake Park-Blaine-Mounds View firefighters battled three fires, all within hours of each other. District Chief Garrett Parten says it's unclear whether the fires are related.

Witness call triggers arrest

Berken was arrested Monday afternoon after a witness called 911 at 1:05 p.m. to report seeing Berken start the fire in a ditch near the DNR headquarters in the wildlife area, Sheriff's Lt. Paul Sommer said Tuesday. Berken later responded with other firefighters to the blaze, Sommer said.

The witness said he saw Berken drive off in a black Hyundai Genesis, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Sigfrinius, who was at the scene of the fire Tuesday, declined to comment on the allegations against Berken.

But DNR spokesman Bob Welsh agreed that if the fire was a result of arson, whoever started the fire was well aware of the southeastern winds and probably the area. Fewer than three dozen homes were evacuated during a fire that produced smoke that could be seen from Blaine, Ham Lake and East Bethel, witnesses said.

Within the past six months, firefighters in Arizona and Kentucky have been charged with arson in connection with fires that go back several years. In those cases, earning money was cited as a motive for setting the fires.

On its website, the Forest Lake Fire Department says, "We understand the trust placed in us by the public and our colleagues is integral to the performance of our duties. We are committed to honest and ethical behavior, and will hold ourselves accountable to these values."

Public records also show that in the early 1990s, Berken was convicted of several theft charges in Ramsey, Dakota and Hennepin counties. He was convicted in Washington County in 1993 of felony check forgery.

Berken, a 1986 graduate of St. Thomas Academy in Mendota Heights, remained in the Anoka County jail on Tuesday. • 612-673-4482 • 612-673-4419