Witnesses, property owners testify in arson trial
In Virginia City, at the Madison County Courthouse, it's day two in the trial of Kyler Schmitz, the Billings man accused of setting the Bear Trap Two Fire. Prosecutors called on eyewitnesses who were there when the fire started and Hwy 84 residents who lost property in the blaze.
The Bear Trap Two Fire broke out southwest of Bozeman, along the Madison River in late June of last year.
Fueled by strong winds, it burned more than 23 square miles, destroying homes, fences and valuable grazing land.
Court records say damages topped $3.2 million and that doesn't include the more than $1 million it cost to put out the fire.
Friends of Schmitz took the stand to tell the jury what they say happened the night of June 24 and June 25, the day the fire started.
According to court documents, Schmitz and several of his friends spent the night at the Bear Trap Campground, downstream from the Warm Springs boat launch off Highway 84 and brought along fireworks. Witnesses testified Schmitz set off fireworks the night they arrived and the next day.
NBC Montana went back through court documents. Prosecutors say it was his last sparkler bomb that ignited dry grass in the area. Witnesses told the jury Schmitz and his friends rushed to put it out, using dirt and coolers of ice.
Property owners like George Stevens also took the stand. "Did it actually burn your property?" asked prosecutors. "Yeah, about 160 acres," replied Stevens.
Stevens fought to save his home, alongside first responders, the second day of the blaze.
"It got about 100 yards behind the house and 300 yards from the east and we...were making firelines behind," says Stevens.
"So, you were making fire lines yourself?" asked prosecutors. "Yes sir," Stevens replied.
Other witnesses say they were relieved to find their home was okay but but did lose property. "Was the Ford pick-up damaged?" asked prosecutors. "Yes, it was a complete loss," says former resident Jolene Burrell.
The trial is set for just one more day. Schmitz faces a total of eight counts of felony arson and one alternative count of negligent arson, also a felony.