The former fire chief of Babbitt, Minn., has been charged by federal prosecutors with setting fires in the Superior National Forest and attempting to set a fire at a local resort while he was chief.
Ryan Scharber resigned as fire chief last December, about the time city officials were told a federal investigation was underway, said Mitch Brunfelt, Babbitt city attorney. “It certainly came as a shock when officials became aware of the investigation, and it continues to be a shock today,” said Brunfelt.
“It’s a sad day,” said Bernice Norregaard, mayor of the Iron Range community since January. “People were commenting that there seemed to be a lot of fires. No one wanted to be thinking that someone would be starting them.”
Scharber is charged with two counts of setting fires in the Superior National Forest on Oct. 7-9 and Oct. 11 in 2011 and on April 29 and Sept. 10 in 2012, according to federal charges filed Oct. 11 that were made public Tuesday.
All the fires occurred just outside Babbitt city limits. According to one law enforcement official, the fires were all relatively small: 5 acres or fewer. The charges say they involved timber, underbrush and grass.
Scharber also is charged with one count of attempted arson at Mattila’s Birch Lake Resort in Babbitt on or about Dec. 3, 2011.
Scharber is not in custody, said his Minneapolis attorney, Joe Tamburino, who declined to comment on the case. Scharber could not be reached for comment and a first court appearance has not yet been scheduled.
According to Brunfelt, Scharber joined the volunteer Babbitt Fire Department in August 2005 and was appointed fire chief by the City Council in January 2008. The appointment was based on the recommendation of the firefighters, who vote on who they want as chief. He resigned on Dec. 26, 2012, in the midst of the investigation.
City Council Member Jim Lassi described Scharber as “a very good chief” who was thorough about his work. Scharber worked hard at getting grants to purchase fire equipment for the city, Lassi said, adding, “He did a really good job for us.”
According to a published report on Sept. 30, 2011, Scharber noted that his department was very busy fighting fires.
“Typically, we have 40 to 50 calls a year and we’re up to 77 right now,” he said, according to a report by Fox 21 News in Duluth. “We have a budget here, but in the end I guess it really doesn’t matter, we have to put the fires out.”
One week later, the first fire occurred in rural Babbitt for which Scharber was charged.
The allegations of attempted arson at the fishing resort appear to stem from an incident first reported by its owner, Don Mattila, in December 2011.
Mattila said in an interview that after dinner one night, he saw lights from a car that came up a driveway. When he went out, he said, he found a vehicle with Fire Department license plates parked near his garage.
He saw Scharber walk out from behind the garage. “He said that he had to take a leak,” said Mattila. “He told me he was the fire chief.” Scharber took off in his car, and Mattila, feeling uneasy, said he called 911.
Later, when Mattila walked around the garage, he smelled the odor of gasoline and found a gas can with a spout on it behind a tree. A sheriff’s investigator came out and took pictures. A week later, Mattila said, he saw tracks from a four-wheeler coming up from a nearby lake and footprints to where the gas can had been.
“There were a lot of fires around here … that nobody could really prove,” he said. “They blamed some on the kids.”
Lassi, the council member, said the news of the charges was not good for the Babbitt community.
“You feel bad,” he said. “I know Ryan personally … He was just a pretty stand-up guy. We’re all a little bit shocked.”