Mesa man charged for starting Sunflower wildfire with shotgun


by Mike Gertzman

Video report by Carina Sonn

Posted on July 2, 2012 at 5:41 PM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 4:02 AM

Map: Sunflower Fire

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PAYSON, Ariz. -- Investigators say a Mesa, Ariz. man caused the Sunflower Fire near Payson by firing a shotgun while on a bachelor party camping trip in the Sycamore Creek area.

According to a criminal complaint released by the US Department of Justice, Steven Craig Shiflet, 23, is facing three counts in connection with the case.

Those counts include negligently placing an ignited substance that may cause a fire, firing incendiary ammunition, and causing a fire -- all on National Forest lands.

A conviction for each of the charges in the complaint carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison, a $5,000 fine, or both.

The Investigation into the source and origin of the Sunflower Fire indicated that the fire originated near the intersection of Forest Road 25 and Sycamore Creek on May 12.

According to the complaint, Shiflet and four of his friends had been shooting at targets for approximately two hours on the morning of May 12, at which point Shiflet loaded an incendiary shotgun shell into a shotgun and fired it.

Shortly after Shiflet fired the shot, smoke appeared in the brush just behind where the shot was fired.

Investigators say the men failed in their attempt to extinguish the fire. They called 911 and were told to leave the area by the 911 operator.

Witnesses gave investigators a license plate number for a white GMC Yukon that led them to one of the men who was on that trip. That man described how Shiflet had fired the incendiary shotgun shell.

Shiflet told investigators that the "flame throwing" shotgun round that he fired is probably what caused the fire.

Shiflet surrendered to investigators an orange Fiocchi 12 gauge shotgun shell which was still in its original packaging. Shiflet said that it was the exact same type of shotgun shell that he fired on May 12 just before the fire started.

The warning on the packaging of the shotgun shell reads, "Shoots 100 feet of fire, setting everything in its path ablaze. Warning Extreme FIRE HAZARD."

Shiflet is scheduled to make an initial appearance in federal court in Phoenix on July 13.

The Sunflower wildfire has now burned nearly 18,000 acres on the Tonto National Forest. It is 80 percent contained.

It firefight has cost $6 million dollars to date.

At one point this season, the Sunflower fire was the largest wildfire in the state.

According to a spokeswoman for the Tonto National Forest, fire restrictions were not in place on May 12, when the wildfire began. However, tracer bullets and incendiary ammunition are prohibited at all times, fire restrictions or not.

When fire restrictions are in place, target shooting is prohibited.

There has been an increase in fire starts from target shooting on the forest, according to officials.

In the Tonto National Forest, there were seven fires that were determined, after investigation, to be caused by firearms in 2010, 10 firearm fires in 2011, and five so far in 2012, counting the Sunflower Fire.

Criminal Complaint: United States V. Steven Craig Shiflet

Sunflower Fire information