A former Forest Lake firefighter, who was accused of starting a fire that burned nearly 2,000 acres in Columbus and then returning to battle the flames with 200 other firefighters, has pleaded guilty to felony arson.

John Berken, 42, once described as an "exemplary citizen" by a mayor who honored him with a Lifesaving Award, will be sentenced to up to 120 days and fined between $50,000 and $78,000, Anoka County prosecutor Wade Kish said Wednesday.

The April 2009 fire that engulfed more than 2.3 square miles of Anoka County's Carlos Avery Wildlife Management Area took two days to extinguish. Cattails and lowland grass were turned into charred stubble. Then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty summoned the National Guard to provide air assistance in extinguishing the fire.

"You can still see charred trees," said DNR forest specialist Jason Kern, who trudged through the area 21 months ago to assess the damage.

Berken entered an Alford plea on Tuesday; under such a plea, a person doesn't admit wrongdoing but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to gain a likely conviction.

Berken remains free until sentencing, scheduled for March 24. His attorney, Marsh Halberg, said Wednesday that there is evidence suggesting Berken did not start the fire, but that his client entered a guilty plea with hope of getting on with his life. He said Berken would not comment publicly before the sentencing.

Background of the case

According to court documents, a father and daughter were driving through the wildlife area in Columbus when the father saw Berken's vehicle and detected something being shot out of the passenger window. The father said he saw flashing colored lights in a ditch and then fire.

His daughter called 911 and reported the license plate and noted that it had a firefighter's insignia. The two tried to follow Berken's vehicle, but gave up when it approached 100 miles per hour, according to the court complaint.

Berken was arrested later while fighting the fire.

Latest chapter

Berken's sentencing before Judge Douglas Meslow will end the latest chapter for a former Forest Lake Chamber of Commerce board member who was once called "a good guy, a nice guy, fun to be around," by a former chamber chairwoman.

Berken was a firefighter for 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.

Before that, Berken's bid to become a volunteer firefighter in Forest Lake had run into bumps. When he filled out a 2004 application questionnaire that asked whether he had been convicted of any felonies in the previous five years, he answered, "No," and was hired, former Mayor Terry Smith said.

But a background check detailed convictions for Berken in the early 1990s, outside the five-year period, on several theft charges in Ramsey, Dakota and Hennepin counties. He had been convicted in Washington County in 1993 of felony check forgery.

In 1991, Berken was sentenced to a year in prison for threatening to bomb Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie. He used a radio in his car and spoke with an accent saying, "This is Ahmed Ismail. I am going to blow up your airport," authorities said.

After the background check, Berken's application was denied but he appealed and was reinstated "with an extraordinary probation period." The mayor said later that the five-year language played a role, as did Berken's contributions to the community and letters that had been written by three veteran firefighters who worked alongside him during his training and knew of his record.

Berken later encountered financial difficulties. In 2008, American Express won a $3.8 million consent judgment against him. The credit card company alleged in a federal lawsuit that Berken used his Forest Lake Ford's dealership's charge card to obtain more than $4 million in cash and failed to repay more than $3.8 million of it. The Ford dealership filed for bankruptcy and is no longer in business.

An investigation of Berken by a law agency outside of Anoka County continues, Kish said.

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419