Campers near a multiday outdoor music event, an exploding target at a shooting pit and possibly arson are thought to have triggered the Tenino Complex, three fires that sparked in August in Thurston and south Pierce counties.
What ignited the fires sounds straightforward, but they’re anything but routine, particularly a blaze south of Tenino. That location was the setting for a musical event known as a “rave,” which was hosted by a transient, public records show.
The fires were named the Tenino Complex by the state Department of Natural Resources, the state agency charged with handling information about the blazes.
Little was known about the fires at the time, likely because the agency had its hands full with the Carlton Complex in Central Washington, the largest wildfire in the state’s history.
Due to the lack of information at the time about the Tenino Complex, The Olympian filed a public records request in August and fire investigation records were released to the paper at the end of October and in early December.
The three fires burned near Crane Road, south of Tenino; Johnson Creek Road rock pit in Rainier; and Kinsman Court in Roy.
Although the fire investigation reports provide more details about each fire, they still are largely inconclusive about what triggered the blazes. Fire investigator Dennis Heryford, who authored the three reports, retired before the Kinsman Court fire report could be completed.
CRANE ROAD FIRE
The largest of the three fires — and the most unusual — was the Crane Road blaze, which was ignited by a forest debris pile within a 40-acre plot of land.
“This (debris) pile could have been ignited on purpose by the property owner and event host, or (by) one or more of the event attendees who were on site for the event, or it could have been ignited by embers and campfire creep from several surrounding campfires that were ignited by unknown event attendees and were left burning at the time of the event,” according to the report’s findings.
The event, according to the report, was an outdoor, multiday music affair on private property.
The host was Kimball Garth Karlson-Martini, 33, a “self-professed transient who claimed he was purchasing the property from The Herbrand Co. of Puyallup via a lease-option agreement,” according to the report.
He allegedly lived on the Tenino-area property with his girlfriend in a tent, had horses on the property and taught riding lessons, said Diana Moore, executive administrative assistant at The Herbrand Co., a logging and land investment company.
During and after the fire, Moore worked with fire-response authorities and adjacent property owners, she said.
“We’ve always had good luck with our clients,” Moore said. “This came as such a surprise.”
The parcel of land near Crane Road, recently logged and replanted with tree seedlings, was for sale for $179,000, the option agreement shows.
Moore said that when buyers can’t put down 20 percent for a purchase, they usually turn to a lease-option agreement where the buyer can make monthly payments toward ownership.
They struck that deal with Karlson-Martini in May, who, at the time, provided a Canby, Oregon, address and phone number. Their understanding then, Moore said, was that he was going to use the land for “agricultural purposes, raising crops and honey bees.”
Karlson-Martini, who contacted The Olympian late Sunday, acknowledged he was using the land for agricultural purposes, had horses, offered riding lessons to neighbors, and had a tent on the property.
He was not a transient, he said, but had an apartment in Yelm at the time.
Sometimes, though, he would spend the night on the property, he acknowledged.
By the weekend of Aug. 8, use of the property had become something much different.
Moore estimates that during that weekend, 3,000 people descended on the property for a rave, a musical gathering typically known for its colorful light displays, dance music and drug use.
Karlson-Martini disputes this, saying it was not a rave but a stargazing event, which included music, tied to the Perseid meteor shower, he said.
And instead of 3,000 people, about 450 people attended the stargazing, Karlson-Martini said.
Karlson-Martini allegedly charged for parking and camping, Moore said. He said he charged only for parking.
Fire investigator Heryford, who interviewed Karlson-Martini, said in his report that he took steps to prevent a fire.
“He did not charge for admission, but prohibited any open burning and actively monitored the property with a security group. All fires observed by security were extinguished immediately,” according to the report.
Still, conditions were ripe for a blaze, Heryford said: Daytime temperatures hovered around 90 degrees and humidity levels plummeted.
The fire eventually burned about 15 acres, Moore said, including a barn and two vehicles. She thinks a campfire or fireworks triggered the burn.
Karlson-Martini said only one vehicle and a storage shed burned. He, too, thinks fireworks are to blame.
After the fire, he removed his personal property and horses, Moore said. The company also repossessed the property and filed an injunction to prevent him from returning to it — they had heard he was planning a medieval-themed wedding on the site, Moore said.
Karlson-Martini acknowledged Sunday the wedding was planned.
The company has dropped its legal efforts against Karlson-Martini because it hasn’t been able to find him. Karlson-Martini said Sunday he lives in Tacoma.
The company also has restored the burned property and wants to sell it.
“But I doubt we’ll be accepting any further options,” Moore said.
Karlson-Martini alleges he did some restoration work before the property was repossessed. He also said he notified the county, the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office and local fire officials about his stargazing event.
JOHNSON CREEK ROAD FIRE
This fire burned in a large rock pit — east of Johnson Creek Road in Rainier — that is popular for recreational target shooting, according to the report.
“The fire was most likely caused by the shooting and subsequent discharge of a large exploding target,” according to the report’s findings. “There was evidence of target shooting in the pit and within the fire’s general and specific origin areas.”
Heryford ultimately did not identify anyone who could be responsible for the fire, but he did contact the King County-based owner of the property, telling him to post “no shooting” and “no trespassing” signs because the rock pit wasn’t a sanctioned shooting pit but had unofficially become one, he said.
Heryford’s report did not include a damage estimate for the fire.
KINSMAN COURT FIRE
The Kinsman Court fire in Roy sparked several forest debris piles within a 30-acre clear cut, according to the report.
Property owner Phillip Dennis of Roy said timber had been harvested in the past couple of years. Dennis, who was asked how the fire might have started, said he had some “enemies,” according to the report.
“He also stated he believed it could be spontaneous combustion as well,” according to the report.
Later, though, Heryford learned that a Yelm High School student allegedly had bragged about starting the fire in “retribution for having been fired by Dennis earlier in the year.”
Although a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy was assigned to investigate the fire, the Sheriff’s Department “wasn’t pursuing any charges against the student at the time,” according to the report.
Sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer could not be reached.
Dennis said Wednesday that he wasn’t aware of any ongoing investigation, although he still thinks it’s odd that the fire started in the middle of the night.
Logs that burned were to be sold as firewood and for chain saw carvings, Dennis said, estimating his financial loss at about $15,000.
“It’s not going to hurt me too bad,” he said.