Arson Suspect Charged with Flathead Lake Fires Pleads Not Guilty

Craig Allen McCrea, 36, is connected to several fires in the Polson area, including the destructive Boulder 2700 fire on Finley Point last summer

By Maggie Dresser
The twisted and charred remains of a structure taken by the Boulder 2700 Fire along the east shore of Flathead Lake as seen on Aug. 26, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

A 36-year-old Ronan man who allegedly ignited the Boulder 2700 wildfire last summer in Polson along with several other destructive wildfires pleaded not guilty Wednesday to three felony counts of arson.

Craig Allen McCrea entered the pleas during a June 9 arraignment hearing in Lake County District Court before Judge Molly Owen. He remains in the Lake County Detention Center.

McCrea was arrested in May following a months-long investigation, Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said at the time of the arrest. The Boulder 2700 wildfire, which McCrea is allegedly responsible for, prompted hundreds of emergency evacuations on the eastern shore of Flathead Lake last summer on Finley Point.

The destructive Boulder 2700 fire burned down more than a dozen homes and other buildings, destroyed thousands of acres of forest land and created hazardous conditions on Montana Highway 35 last summer, Bell said in a media release last month.

Investigators concluded the Boulder 2700 fire and two other fires were intentionally ignited, pointing to evidence collected by Lake County detectives and fire investigators with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes that allegedly connects the arson activity to McCrea.

According to charging documents, officials immediately determined the Boulder 2700 fire was human-caused in addition to two other blazes in the same area in the weeks prior. Detectives collected and reviewed 100 hours of video surveillance footage from local businesses and residences to identify and exclude suspects. After securing a warrant to obtain cellular data and location information for a device belonging to Crystal M. Kline, who had a relationship with McCrea, detectives determined she was present during all three fires.

All fires were ignited on 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.

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

In an interview with Lake County Det. Dan 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, who he lived with and who at the time was employed by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Division of Fire.

The investigation revealed McCrea was using drugs at the time of the alleged arsons and drug paraphernalia recovered from the scene of one of the fires, which included a straw used to inhale drug vapors that was tested positive for fentanyl at the Montana State Crime Lab.

According to charging documents, surveillance video footage obtained by investigators reveals the headlights of a vehicle ascending and descending the steep mountain access road where the Boulder 2700 fire started. Kline’s cellular data linked 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.”

McCrea is scheduled to go to trial on Oct. 31, 2022 at 9 a.m.