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Arsons vex Cass Lake police, firefighters

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John Enger

MPR News 91.3 FM

Cass Lake — Tim Reiplinger woke in the early morning hours one day last summer to hear his phone ringing and his neighbor on the line, yelling that Reiplinger’s boathouse was on fire.

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Reiplinger sprinted from his home, hoping to save his possessions. He pulled his truck from the fiery structure, but everything else burned. A retired firefighter, his gut told him this was no accident. It burned too fast to have a natural cause. The police and fire investigation confirmed it: another arson in Cass Lake.

Reiplinger, 63, was saddened but not shocked. A 28-year veteran of the Cass Lake Fire Department with a dozen years as its chief, Reiplinger’s currently the interim chief and he said he’s lost track of all the arson fires he’s fought. “We have a lot of arsons here for sure,” he said.

Interviews with fire and law enforcement officials, together with state fire data, suggest Cass Lake has a problem with arson. Last month the Cass County Sheriff’s Department arrested a 17-year-old, suspecting he kindled a wildfire that claimed 76 acres of forest and several disused outbuildings just a mile south of the city. He has since been charged with felony wildfire arson.

MPR News analyzed arson statistics collected by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety from 2009 to 2012, the most recent year available, and found higher than average arson rates in Cass Lake.

In those years, 22 intentional fires were reported in the city of Cass Lake, a community of fewer than 800 people. During the same period Ironton, Minnesota, with a similar population, reported only one arson fire. Across the state communities on average reported 3.3 arsons per 1,000 residents over the same period. The fire data is voluntarily submitted to the public safety department by departments around the state.

Cass County’s Emergency Management Director Kerry Swenson wasn’t surprised by the Cass Lake numbers. In fact, he thought they’d be higher.

Over the years, he said, the sheer volume of intentional fires has forced Cass Lake firefighters into a more serious role.

“These aren’t guys who sit around on a Friday night and have some beers and talk about fires,” he said. “They’re serious.”

The recent 76-acre wildfire could have turned more serious as well. A few years ago a big storm blew through the area, leaving fallen trees to dry in its wake. The forests were primed for fire. If the local firefighting crews hadn’t had so much practice mobilizing and coordinating with other agencies, Swenson said the fire could have caused more damage.

Swenson wouldn’t guess at a reason for all the arsons, but did say most of the fires took place on Leech Lake reservation land. Cass Lake is the largest population center within the Leech Lake Reservation.

Reiplinger, who is not a tribal member, has lived on the reservation for decades, running a seasonal mobile home park and working with the fire department. He said in his area, arson is sometimes used as a way to get even.

“If two families have a problem,” he said. “That could result in a few arsons.”

At this point he doesn’t think the loss of his boathouse was any type of retribution, blaming instead the nature of unsupervised teenagers.

At some point, young people in Cass Lake started lighting fires, Assistant Tribal Police Chief Garr Pemberton said. “A solid majority of these fires are started by kids lighting matches.”

He called the practice, “learned behavior,” saying young people are introduced to arson within peer groups as a form of entertainment.

“Kids are running around with other kids,” he said. “One starts a fire and the others might think, ‘that was cool.’”

Over the same four-year period in which Cass Lake reported 22 arsons, only three juveniles were convicted of arson across all of Cass County, according to Cass County Probation Department Director Jim Schneider.

Those numbers suggest many kids are never caught or charged.

Juvenile court records are not public, but Reiplinger said investigators told him a 14-year-old local boy had doused the place with gasoline and lit a match — an attempt to cover the theft of a golf cart.

County Prosecutor Christopher Strandlie couldn’t comment on specific cases, but offered a broad explanation. “Arson is very hard to prosecute,” he said.

Schneider said the juvenile justice system is focused on rehabilitation rather than punishment, so young arson offenders who are caught often face probation and youth programs rather than stiffer adult penalties.

“When you’re dealing with the juvenile system,” he said, “you’re not looking at prison, you’re looking at adjudication.”

During the insurance claim process after his fire, Reiplinger estimated the damage at $190,000. The 14-year-old who burned down his boathouse, he said, was charged with burglary and sentenced to 30 days in juvenile detention and probation.

A few months later as Reiplinger rebuilt his boathouse, he said a crew of juvenile thieves broke into 25 of his 33 mobile home units, stealing TVs and other items. Now he’s considering relocating.

“That’s why this stuff continues,” he said. “There’s no price to pay.”

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