Great Falls, MT – Three men have been arrested for intentionally setting two fires that destroyed nearly 30 structures, killed numerous family pets, and torched an unknown number of vehicles, according to the sheriff.
The fires ripped through the Gibson Flats area southeast of Great Falls as winds of up to 50 miles per hour battered the region in the early morning hours of Dec. 1, engulfing buildings and burning nearly 85 acres by sunrise, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
A total of 13 homes and 16 outbuildings were demolished by the inferno, which killed a number of family pets and destroyed multiple vehicles, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said during a press conference Wednesday.
No humans were injured or killed during the fires.
According to court documents, a CCSO detective and investigators with the Montana State Fire Marshal’s Office (SFMO) located security footage that showed a vehicle arriving in the area where one of the fires was ignited along Highland Road, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
The vehicle stopped at the scene briefly, then departed.
“A short time later fire could be observed,” according to the arrest affidavit.
Investigators received tips that 18-year-old Brandon Cordell Bennett had used fireworks left over from the Fourth of July to ignite the blaze.
Bennett allegedly told police during an interview Tuesday that he had nothing to do with the fires, and claimed he and his friend, 19-year-old Jevin McLean, were in another town meeting with a friend when the blaze started, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
When investigators spoke to McLean, he allegedly told them he and Bennett had picked up another friend, 19-year-old Galvinn Munson, and that all three were meeting with a friend in another town when the fire happened in Great Falls, according to court documents.
But as they questioned him further, McClean allegedly confessed that the trio came with the “cover story” about being in another area when the fire was ignited after one of them was contacted by the SFMO.
Investigators went back to Bennett, who allegedly admitted he and his friends were smoking marijuana and lighting off fireworks at one another inside a car while driving around that night, Sheriff Slaughter said during the press conference.
At one point, Munson got out of the car and discharged a “Roman Candle” in a grassy ditch next to the road, according to court documents.
McClean allegedly told investigators he watched Munson intentionally set two fires in two separate locations, the Great Falls Tribune reported.
Sheriff Slaughter said the initial fire burned a patch of grassland with a radius of approximately one mile.
“The initial fire was started with the intentional setting of a Roman candle, intentionally shooting it into the grass. Fire number two was set, according to statements, by Munson with a lighter intentionally,” Sheriff Slaughter said.
The trio fled the area afterwards and didn’t call 911 as they watched the fire flare up from another location, according to court documents.
Calls about the wildfire began coming it at approximately 2:40 a.m., Sheriff Slaughter said during the press conference.
First responders immediately began evacuating residents as the flames raced across the prairie towards the Gibson Flats homes.
Munson was arrested on two counts of arson and 13 counts of criminal endangerment, Sheriff Slaughter said.
McLean and Bennett were each arrested on an arson by accountability charge.
A judge set Munson’s bond at $100,000 Wednesday, KRTV reported.
McLean and Bennett are being held on $50,000 bond apiece.
Sheriff Slaughter praised first responders and agency partners for their swift response to the devastating blaze, and said he is especially thankful to members of the Great Falls community who reached out with tips to help investigators make arrests in this case.