By Cailey Rizzo
October 08, 2019

A massive wildfire in Washington last year started with thievery gone awry.

According to an indictment released by the Department of Justice last week, two thieves went to the Olympic National Forest in August 2018 with the intention of stealing wood from big leaf maple trees. They felled the trees and expected to sell them, as they had several times before. But when the tree was down, they found a wasp’s nest in its branches.

The duo decided to get rid of the nest by setting fire to it, but the flames quickly spread. They tried to douse the fire with water bottles but that attempt did not work. The fire rapidly ate up the maple tree — and a surrounding 3,300 acres. The fire was not extinguished until November. It cost approximately $4.5 million to contain, according to the Department of Justice.

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People who steal trees from national forests are called “tree poachers” — and it’s not as uncommon as you might believe. The wood from big leaf maples can bring in a tidy profit for thieves. It’s prized for its sort of “figured wood,” meaning it appears with a wavy pattern. It’s often used by guitar manufacturers to produce unique-looking instruments.

The federal indictment alleges that the men had been illegally felling trees for months and had sold their wood to mills for thousands of dollars. It’s unclear how thieves are able to steal the maple from parks with no one noticing, but foresters often find trees hacked to pieces on the forest floor.

Illegal logging is nothing new. It dates back to the early 20th century when the National Forest Service was established and certain trees placed under federal protection. But, according to High Country News, they came back to wreak havoc in Washington national forests in 2001. A 2007 report from the Seattle Times estimates that hundreds of maples were stolen from area forests each year. “There’s usually some connection to illegal drugs, whether it’s a small baggie of methamphetamine found in a suspect’s pocket or, in one case, a makeshift meth lab in the back of a pickup,” the article said.

The U.S. Forestry department is developing a program to use DNA testing so mills can identify illegal wood and refuse to purchase it.

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