A Billings man accused of starting the Bear Trap wildfire along the Madison River west of Bozeman last summer has pleaded not guilty to eight charges of felony arson.
The Madison County Attorney’s Office filed the charges against Kyler Schmitz, 24, earlier this month. Prosecutors say he started the 15,500-acre wildfire when he set off fireworks in a campground in late June.
The fire cost more than $1.23 million to suppress. The estimated value of property lost in the Bear Trap fire — including a couple’s home, crops, pastures, fences, a vehicle, eight horses, transmission lines and more — was more than $3.8 million.
According to court documents filed in Madison County District Court on Oct. 3:
Schmitz and several friends were spending the night near the Bear Trap campground on Bear Trap Road in the Lower Madison River Recreation Area on June 24.
On his way to the campground, Schmitz stopped to purchase fireworks. That night, he ignited several fireworks, mortars and sparkler bombs. Schmitz was the only person in the group who brought fireworks and the only one who lit them.
The next morning, Schmitz wanted to light off his last sparkler bomb before the group went on a river float. Others in the group told him not to do it, but Schmitz lit off the firework, which exploded several feet above the ground, ignited grass and started fires in several areas.
Schmitz and others tried to extinguish the blazes with water and dirt, but the fires quickly grew and forced campers in the area to flee.
The fire was fully suppressed July 2.
Schmitz told law enforcement that he lit the firework that caused the fires. He told investigators that the fire “was my fault, everyone including my brother did not have a part in this.” Schmitz also filled out a voluntary statement form detailing his involvement in the fire.
Schmitz said he wanted to help homeowners who lost their home in the fire and indicated he was trying to secure as many loans as possible to begin repaying them.
Schmitz, who is free without bail, pleaded not guilty during a court appearance before District Judge Loren Tucker in Virginia City earlier this week. Each arson charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, a $50,000 fine or both.
Whitney Bermes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 582-2648.