Arson Suspect Charged with Destructive Flathead Lake Fires

Craig Allen McCrea, 36, of Ronan, remains jailed on $1 million bail after Lake County detectives connected him to several fires in the Polson area, including the Boulder 2700 fire that last summer resulted in hundreds of emergency evacuations and the loss of a dozen homes

By Tristan Scott
The chimney is the only part of Duane Kannberg’s home that remained standing after the Boulder 2700 Fire swept over his property along the east shore of Flathead Lake, as seen on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A 36-year-old Ronan man was charged Tuesday with three counts of arson for allegedly igniting several destructive wildfires in the Polson area last summer, including the Boulder 2700 blaze that prompted hundreds of emergency evacuations on the eastern shore of Flathead Lake and which gutted a dozen homes and outbuildings.

The defendant, Craig Allen McCrea, is scheduled to appear for an arraignment hearing Wednesday, May 18 at 9 a.m. in Lake County District Court. He’ll have an opportunity to enter pleas to the felony offenses before Judge James Manley, who has ordered the defendant to remain in custody at the Lake County Detention Center on $1 million bail.

McCrea’s arrest comes after a months-long “exhaustive” investigation, according to Lake County Sheriff Don Bell, who oversaw the emergency evacuations that displaced hundreds of families when the Boulder 2700 fire erupted in the Mission Mountains northeast of Finley Point last Aug. 31. Stoked by high winds, the fire quadrupled in size before it ran down the mountainside to the eastern shore of Flathead Lake, which is lined with homes and cherry orchards.

“The Boulder 2700 fire resulted in the emergency evacuation of hundreds of families, burned down more than a dozen homes and other outbuildings, destroyed thousands of acres of forest land, and has created an ongoing hazardous condition on Montana Highway 35 due to destabilizing the vegetation and causing frequent rocks to fall to the road,” Bell stated in a media release announcing the charges. “Lake County detectives pursued many leads in this investigation from the point it was identified as an arson fire. This exhaustive investigation led to the identification of McCrea as the arsonist. In conjunction with evidence discovered by CSKT Tribal Fire investigators the two previous fires were also identified as being started by McCrea.”

According to charging documents establishing probable cause, Lake County Sheriff’s Det. Dan Yonkin was assigned to investigate the Boulder 2700 fire, which officials immediately identified as a human-caused start along with two other blazes in the same area in the weeks prior. Yonkin collected and reviewed more than 100 hours of video surveillance footage from local businesses and residents to identify and exclude suspects, eventually leading him to secure a warrant to obtain cellular data and location information for a device belonging to Crystal M. Kline. The cellular data indicated that Kline had been present at the location of each of the three fires — all ignited on remote, lightly traveled forest roads in the middle of the night — shortly before they were reported, records state. In addition to the Boulder 2700 Fire, Kline was allegedly present at the start of the Jette Hill Fire on July 9, 2021, as well as the Boulder 2800 Fire on July 16, 2021.

In an interview with Yonkin, Kline admitted to accompanying the defendant to the scene of each fire, believing they were going to the woods to get high. Instead, Kline said McCrea would “hop out of the car and start a fire with a torch,” records state, and that she was afraid to tell anyone because the defendant was physically abusive to her. Kline told Yonkin that McCrea admitted starting the fires to his father, Bob McCrea, with whom he lived and who at the time was employed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Division of Fire.

The Boulder 2700 fire burns on the east shore of Flathead Lake on the night of July 31, 2021. Photo by Jayson Pichler

The investigation also revealed that the defendant was using drugs at the time of the alleged arsons, records state, based on paraphernalia recovered from the scene of one of the fires, including a straw used to inhale drug vapors. Analysis at the Montana State Crime Lab revealed the straw tested positive for fentanyl, a schedule II drug, while a DNA swab of the straw has since been linked to the defendant’s saliva, records state. Jamie Bray, a forensic DNA analyst at the crime lab, was “able to match the sample obtained from the aforementioned straw with the Defendant’s DNA profile, to a likelihood of 1 in 425 trillion,” records state.

In one chilling detail contained in the charging documents, prosecutors describe surveillance video footage obtained by investigators that depicts the start of the Boulder 2700 fire. The footage reveals the headlights of a vehicle ascending and descending the steep mountain access road; using Kline’s cellular data, detectives were able to link her coordinates to the scene during the same timeframe.

“Video obtained of the start of the fire shows a single set of headlights creep up the mountain road, switching back as it ascends to the scene of the fire start fifteen minutes later. Phone data shows Kline was at the scene for over an hour before descending down the same switchback logging road,” the charging documents state. “Video shows the headlights descend the road as the fire blows up behind them.”

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