Arson Problem in Minnesota City

June 9, 2014

When a 17-year-old boy was arrested in May in a suspected arson fire that scorched 76 forested acres near Cass Lake, it was just the latest indication the city has a problem with fire-setting.

An analysis of arson statistics from 2009 to 2012, the most recent available, showed a much higher rate in the city than statewide, Minnesota Public Radio News reported.

Twenty-two intentional fires were reported in the period, which amounted to almost 35 per 1,000 people. The statewide average for the same period was just 3.3, MPR reported.

Cass County emergency director Kerry Swenson said he was surprised the numbers weren’t higher. He said the 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.”

Most of the fires take place on Leech Lake reservation land, Swenson said.

Garr Pemberton, assistant tribal police chief for the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, told MPR that most of the fires are started by kids who see them as entertainment.

If juveniles are setting fires, they aren’t being caught. Cass County Probation Department director Jim Schneider said only three juveniles were convicted of arson in the entire county during the four-year period when 22 arsons were reported.

County prosecutor Christopher Strandlie said arson is hard to prosecute.

Tim Reiplinger, whose boathouse was destroyed by arson last summer, is also a 28-year veteran of the Cass Lake Fire Department and currently interim chief. He said the 14-year-old who burned down his boathouse was charged with burglary and sentenced to 30 days in juvenile detention and probation. A few months after he rebuilt his boathouse, he said, juveniles broke into several of his mobile home units and stole several items.

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

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