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Who or what is starting the fires? 28 fires in 49 days spur investigation

The Dickinson Rural Fire Department and the Stark County Sheriff's Office have responded to over a dozen grass/brush fires located along Highway 22 north and south of the airport area since the beginning of April. The drought conditions along with the high fire index creates optimal opportunity for a fire should there be an ignition source. The question remains clear: what’s going on the south side of Dickinson?

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Firefighters from the Dickinson Rural Fire Department and Dickinson Fire Department use forks to contain the flames of a fire that spurred and ignited a farm field and equipment on a property April 3, 2021, on the southwest side of Dickinson off near 40th Street Southwest and 116th Avenue Southwest. A total of 28 fire incidents have occurred south of Interstate 94 since April 1. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)

Since April, there have been more than a dozen grass and brush fires located along Highway 22 north and south of the airport. In total no fewer than 28 fires have sent taxpayer funded fire services south of Interstate 94 between April 1 to May 20 of this year alone.

Despite the recent rainfall in Dickinson and Stark County, fire personnel and the Stark County Sheriff’s Office are reminding the public to continue being cautious of fire conditions.

The Dickinson Rural Fire Department has requested assistance from the State Fire Marshal's office, according to Administrative Chief Jeff Thompson of the Dickinson Rural Fire Department.

“I honestly can’t tell you why there’s such an issue in that area. It could be accidental; we’re looking for any ties to trucks that leave for lunch every day at the same time or anything that could help determine what’s causing these (fires). Or if it’s intentional, why (do) they pick that section? It’s very difficult to say,” Thompson remarked. “Until we actually find the actual cause, which we might unfortunately never find, it’s pretty difficult to know.”

Over the past week, precipitation has been abundant, Mehrer said. However, if weather patterns reverse in the upcoming weeks, especially with high winds having a tendency to dry out the soil, those optimal fire conditions could become an issue for the region, he added.

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“We are looking into it, and we haven’t been able to identify common underlying factors other than the fact that the fires are generally happening from about noon into the early evening hours,” Lt. Eldon Mehrer of the Stark County Sheriff’s Office said. “We’ve been out there and we’ve gone through the scenes and trying to look for ignition sources, causes of the fire. We haven’t been able to determine that. So right now, it’s just undetermined as to how these fires are starting.”

Mehrer said that although the fires do seem to be coincidentally happening in the same area, primarily south of the airport along the west side of Highway 22, it’s important to note that the region was experiencing severe drought conditions. High winds and no moisture leads to “optimal conditions for starting fires,” Mehrer noted.

The Stark County Sheriff’s Office issued an advisory statement on its Facebook page on May 20 as well as the Stark County Department of Emergency Services, warning the public about avoiding throwing cigarette butts out of windows and other sources that may fuel a fire to ignite.

“It could be something as easy as a dragging safety chain on a trailer, hot rubber coming off a tire, there could be other explanations as to what's starting this,” Mehrer said. “Other than we have a person or persons ... that's actually going out there and starting them on purpose. We have no indication of that being the story. Obviously, (they are) drawing our attention because the only commonality is they’re south of Dickinson, primarily south of the airport along the west side of highway 222 and they occur early to late afternoon. Those are the three commonalities.”

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Firefighter Brendan Berger of the Dickinson Rural Fire Department works on a fire hydrant to retrieve more water for a truck during a field fire that occurred in early April in Dickinson. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)

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Dickinson firefighter Bryan Murphy (right) waters down the border of a burnt field while Lt. Jose Serrato lends a hand April 2, 2021. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)

If the State Fire Marshal’s office determines that any of these incidents were intentional and violated arson laws, those officials as well as investigators from the Stark County Sheriff’s Office can press charges, Thompson noted.

“That’s why we’re being so careful with just ‘under investigation.’ Because there’s obviously a lot of fires in one area. So we have an open investigation,” Thompson said. “A lot of times it’s just an isolated incident where we just call it an unknown cause off of the highway. So we’re fully aware that this seems abnormal that they’re all on the west side of the road, that there’s feelings that there’s something going on there and we’re… looking for more connections between these fires than we usually would.”

Thompson and his department of volunteers are taking “extra calls in stride as are many other departments,” he said.

“Road ditch fires are very difficult because there’s so much trash. But we’re hoping whether it is an accident or intentional to figure out what it is and get it stopped, that’s always the goal — try and figure out what is actually starting (these fires),” Thompson said, adding, “A house fire, even, is easier to investigate than a ditch fire. It could be any vehicle.”

If you had noticed anything out of the ordinary in regards to recent fires in the area of Highway 22 south of Dickinson contact the Stark County Sheriff's Office at 701-456-7610. "To send an anonymous tip via text message to the Stark County Sheriff’s Office, text the keyword NDSTARK and your tip to 847411."

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A truck from the Dickinson Rural Fire Department is shown. (Jackie Jahfetson/The Dickinson Press)

Jackie Jahfetson is a former reporter for The Dickinson Press.
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