Suspect charged with arson for Boulder 2700 fire
POLSON — After months of investigation by the Lake County Sheriff’s Office and in conjunction with the CSKT Division of Fire investigators, a Ronan man has been arrested for starting the Boulder 2700 fire last July.
Craig Allen McCrea, 36, is being charged by the Lake County Attorney’s Office for three counts of felony arson. While the two smaller fires McCrea is accused of setting had happened earlier last summer - the Boulder 2800 fire and the Jette Hill fire - neither did near as much damage as the Boulder 2700 fire. The 2700 fire burned near Polson for over a month and according to officials destroyed 14 homes, 17 structures and thousands of acres of forest. The fire forced the emergency evacuation of over a hundred families and created an ongoing hazardous condition on Highway 35 by destabilizing the vegetation, causing rocks to fall to the road frequently.
According to the affidavit, the investigation, spearheaded by Detective Dan Yonkin, began with the collection of over a hundred hours of video footage from businesses and residents in the area that narrowed down potential suspects in the area for all three fires. Eventually, the data gathered allowed them to receive a warrant for cellphone data and location information for an individual associated with McCrea, Crystal Kline.
From Anaconda, Kline, 40, was brought to the attention of Lake County police when she was arrested on Oct. 29, 2021, due to a report of a woman causing a disturbance at a residence. After telling responding officers she’d been invited by the residents, but they had gotten in a fight, officers discovered she was on felony probation and did not have a travel permit to be in Lake County. Officers called her probation officer who requested a search of Kline and her vehicle and this resulted in the discovery of methamphetamine.
Then, according to court records, on May 5, a Lake County Sheriff’s deputy spotted Kline riding in a vehicle with McCrea and he knew her to have an outstanding warrant for her arrest. The deputy made a traffic stop on the vehicle and as it was coming to a stop, the deputy saw Kline throw an item out the vehicle’s window. Investigation of the roadside turned up a syringe the deputy believed was thrown from the vehicle. When advised of her rights, Kline stated McCrea told her to throw it from the window and that McCrea had tried to throw out pills from a container. Upon obtaining a search warrant for the vehicle, the deputy stated he discovered two fentanyl pills along with other drug paraphernalia.
The investigation into the cell data from Kline’s phone from the summer of 2021, unearthed evidence Kline was present at the location where each fire was started shortly before they were reported, all off remote forest roads in the middle of the night. On July 31, 2021, the night the Boulder 2700 fire was started, the data showed Kline had been at the residence of Bob McCrea, Craig’s father (with whom he lives), at around 10 p.m. on July 30. She then went to the KwaTaqNuk Casino for around an hour before a camera picked up a car associated with her, driving through the Highway 93/35 intersection just before midnight.
Video obtained from that evening showed a single set of headlights creeping up the mountain road to the scene of the fire and Kline’s phone data showed she was at the scene for over an hour before descending the same mountain road. The video shows the headlights coming back down the mountain as the fire began to blow up behind them.
McCrea and Kline were similarly tracked via cameras and cell data for the other two fires, placing them at the locations and at the approximate start time of both.
According to the affidavit, Kline admitted to being at the scene of each fire with McCrea. She stated she thought that they were going into the woods to get high, but McCrea would hop out of the car and start a fire with a torch. Kline was afraid to tell anyone, she said, because McCrea was physically abusive to her. She also claimed that McCrea had told his father about starting the fires.
Bob McCrea served fighting fires for over 50 years, first as a smokejumper out of Missoula and as the Wildland Fire Operations Specialist with the CSKT Division of Fire. According to the affidavit, he was still employed in this career during the time of the fires. He has since retired.
Hundreds of residents of Polson were impacted by the Boulder 2700 fire last summer and many are still recovering from it today.
Local ceramic artist Mimi Werner who lives on Finley Point, spent most of the first evacuation day attempting to clear fire hazards around her house and studio to save her life’s work. She wonders when a fire will threaten the area again. “I thought it was quite traumatic,” Werner said, recalling the fire. “Times have changed, we’re not getting the rain like we used to … Out here it feels like a ‘when rather than an if.’”
“We were fortunate to have as much support as anyone really can and it was still just exhausting,” local Kristin Hertz explained as she described the evacuation with her husband Michael Billington and daughter Luna. The family had to step away from their farm during one of their busiest times of year. Still, she said they had it easier than many of their neighbors. Those with animals, she thinks, “are some of the people it took the biggest toll on. And people without family in the area, who had no place to go.”
Billington noted the impact the fire had on some of the area’s volunteer firefighters. “Some individuals got shaken up and they’re having to rebound from the emotional trauma associated with life-or-death situations,” he said. He wishes there were more support systems in place for volunteers, both financially and otherwise.
But despite the tragedy of the fire, the area has shown its strong spirit in the months since. Hertz and Billington look back on that trying time and focus on what positives they discovered from it. They see the land rebounding from the flames and its potential in regrowth. They said the tragedy also made them look around and figure out what they have that’s really worth protecting and that they’ve noticed others doing the same.
“It’s a chance to raise the bar and evolve to new heights,” Billington said.
The community helped local officials with the investigation and to solve the mystery behind the fire. Sheriff Don Bell expressed his appreciation saying,“I’m grateful for the cooperative effort between my detectives and the CSKT Division of Fire investigators and for the support from the community.”
McCrea and Kline both appeared at District Court in Polson for drug charges on May 18, both pleading not guilty to felony criminal possession of drugs. Kline’s case is set for trial on Oct. 17, and she is at liberty.
According to McCrea’s warrant for arrest for three counts of felony arson, his bail is set at $1,000,000. The arraignment hearing for McCrea’s three counts of arson will be held on May 25.