D.C. man: I didn't start Ham Lake fire

  • Article by: LARRY OAKES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 6, 2008 - 11:05 PM

A camper in the BWCA pleaded not guilty to starting the largest forest fire in Minnesota since 1918. The charges say he didn't properly extinguish his campfire.

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Fire burns around Gunflint Lake on the U.S. side, putting a huge plume of smoke into the sky in May, 2007.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune file

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DULUTH - A Washington, D.C., man pleaded not guilty on Thursday to charges that he caused the mammoth Ham Lake wildfire in Minnesota's Arrowhead last year and misled authorities about his role in starting the blaze.

Stephen George Posniak, indicted last month in connection with the May 2007 fire, made his initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Raymond Erickson in Duluth. Posniak, 64, arrived in answer to a summons and was not in custody.

Both Posniak and his attorney, Mark Larsen of Minneapolis, declined to answer questions from reporters.

A federal grand jury in Minneapolis indicted Posniak on charges of causing the fire -- the most destructive in Minnesota since 1918 -- by not extinguishing his campfire before leaving Ham Lake on May 5, 2007. The indictment also accuses him of giving false information to investigators from the Superior National Forest, telling them he'd camped somewhere else and that the fire already was burning out of control when he first encountered it.

By the time the fire was extinguished a week later, it had burned 76,000 acres in Minnesota and Ontario, consuming 138 structures on the U.S. side alone and racking up about $11 million in firefighting costs.

In information posted on the Internet, Posniak, a retired information technology expert for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said he enjoyed canoeing in Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness each May. The biography said he has a B.S. from Dartmouth College and an M.A. from the University of Minnesota.

He confirmed that educational background on Thursday in answer to Erickson's questions. "I'm satisfied that you do not pose a risk of flight or a danger to the community," Erickson said before ordering that Posniak remain free on his own recognizance pending his trial, which Erickson set for Jan. 5 in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis. However, at the request of the prosecutor, assistant U.S. Attorney William Otteson, Erickson ordered Posniak to surrender his passport and not leave the country without court permission.

Posniak faces a potential maximum penalty of six years in prison.

Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504

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