Putting a propane tank in a campfire turns out to be an even stupider idea than we thought.
After Bryan J. Teague of Peoria put a 16-ounce tank in a campfire on August 8 while on an off-roading trip in the Tonto National Forest, the predictable explosion sparked the 5,220-acre "Mistake Peak Fire," court documents state.
Investigators quickly figured out where the fire, which had started at about 6 p.m., originated. Later that same night, Teague, 56, was caught skulking in woods and questioned. He lied initially about the details of the incident, records state, but confessed a week later to kicking the propane tank in the fire ring, watching it explode, and leaving the site after the fire grew out of control.
The U.S. Forest Service filed a federal criminal complaint against Teague on Thursday, and he was arrested in Peoria on Friday, court records show.
Records show that on the evening of August 8, investigators found an abandoned campsite near the intersection of forest roads 236 and 236a where they believed the fire started. One big clue was the exploded propane tank in the fire ring. At the site was a 2012 Can Am side-by-side utility vehicle loaded with camping supplies and a container labeled "Teague's Book League."
Forest Service law-enforcement officers staked out the roads in the wooded area and talked to some firefighters battling the growing blaze who said they ran into a guy who told them he was a hiker.
At about 11 p.m., officials stopped a red Jeep towing an empty trailer that was heading towards the fire on different forest road. Inside the Jeep were Zeke Teague and Tiffany Teague. Zeke's relationship wasn't identified in the complaint, but Tiffany told an officer she was looking for Bryan, her husband, who had called her after his utility vehicle broke down. She said Bryan had said nothing about a fire, and she said she didn't know about it, either, until she saw firefighters.
Officials allowed her to load up the Can Am utility vehicle and other equipment at the campsite, and Tiffany Teague headed out of the area.
At about 1:30 a.m., officials noticed the Jeep near the same campsite, slowing down on a forest road about 70 yards from the site. From the complaint, which was penned by Larry Hall, USFS Special Agent:
When the officer pulled closer to the Jeep, it continued westbound on FSDR 236. The officer heard brush breaking in the wood-line and used a spotlight to illuminate a white male adult, later identified as Bryan J. Teague. [Teague] tried to quickly sit down, slumping his head and shoulders, to act as if he were sleeping when the spotlight illuminated him.
At first, Teague would not even "acknowledge" the fire as officers talked to him. He denied he'd talked to the firefighters until told they could identify him. Officers saw that the tread on the soles of his shoes matched footprints found at the campsite.
Teague then explained that he'd come into the area after his utility vehicle broke down. No one else was there. He lit a fire to cook some food, but didn't cook any food. He thought he'd put out the fire by pouring four or five water bottles on it.
The officers told him there was no sign that anyone had tried to put out the fire.
Teague admitted that he'd seen some smoke and "figured he knew what had started the fire," but left the area because he "just wanted to go home."
On August 17, Teague voluntarily went into Forest Service's Tonto National Forest Supervisor's Office in Phoenix for an interview. At first, he stuck to his story. Then officials confronted him with the evidence they'd found.
Teague then admitted he got angry because his vehicle had stopped working, and kicked the propane tank into the fire ring. It began to whistle, then exploded with a fireball "bigger than his wingspan..."
"He said flaming 'ambers' (sic) went everywhere and began to catch the wood-line around the camp on fire," records state. Teague saw "a large tree become engulfed in flames, got scared, and fled the area."
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The Forest Service is seeking charges of carelessly or negligently throwing or placing any ignited substance or other substance that may cause a fire, burning brush or timber without a permit, and leaving a fire without completely extinguishing it.
Reports from the news media and government show that after Teague blew up the campsite, the fire spread over the next several days to scorch a large swatch of land. It was finally contained on August 27, having consumed 5,220 acres.
The kicker: Teague had just gotten out of prison a few months before the fire, having been sentenced to one year for shooting a firearm within city limits.
We tried unsuccessfully to reach the Teagues by phone this evening.