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Bridger Man In Custody On Arson Charges For Robertson Draw Fire

Andy Teetzel
A plane drops retardant on the Robertson Draw Fire June 22, 2021.

Authorities investigating the Robertson Draw Fire south of Red Lodge have arrested a suspect and are charging him with arson.

John Lightburn, aged 55 of Bridger, faces charges of felony negligent arson, felony criminal mischief and misdemeanor negligent arson for his alleged involvement in starting the now-30,000 acre fire, according to documents Carbon County Attorney Alex Nixon filed Wednesday.

Charging documents say a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer discovered Lightburn’s motorbike, burns and other evidence while investigating an area off-limits to motor vehicles the day the fire was reported June 13.

Carbon County Attorney Nixon says Lightburn may have started the fire when he attempted to fix his motorbike’s flooded engine while riding in the Robertson Draw area.

“And in the process managed to spill gasoline on the ground,” Nixon says.

He says Lightburn then created a spark that allegedly started the fire. According to charging documents, the flame spread through dry grasses and sage and grew rapidly in temperatures over 90 degrees and dry, windy conditions.

Lightburn is being held on $7,500 bail in the Gallatin County Detention Center, according to the Carbon County Sheriff’s Office, and is awaiting arraignment.

If convicted, a charge of felony negligent arson could carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years, a fine of up to $50,000 or both, according to the charging document.

The Robertson Draw Fire has burned eight homes and 13 secondary structures. The Northern Rockies Coordination Center estimates current firefighting costs are $5 million.

“There was gas all over”

The following account is based on charging documents. The information described is from law authorities' investigation.

The charging documents describe U.S. Forest Service Officer Katrina Haworth responding to a report of a fire burning in Carbon County on June 13.

Haworth confirmed the report with the sheriff’s office and drove to the Robertson Draw area. While en route she heard over the radio that a man with burns “walked out of the woods near where the fire started.”

When Haworth arrived on scene, she came upon two men on a utility task vehicle. The UTV driver approached Haworth and she recognized him as a retired investigator, who the charging documents identify as JR.

JR told Haworth she needed to speak with his passenger, who turned out to be John Lightburn.

Lightburn allegedly told Haworth he’d been riding his dirt bike on a trail when he thought his bike might be flooding. He said he tried to repair it and, during the process, spilled gasoline and told Haworth “there was gas all over.” The foot trail and area around it are closed to motor vehicle use.

Lightburn said he then decided to test whether he could get a spark. He was successful and the spark ignited the gasoline and the dry grasses in the area.

The charging documents say the “[d]efendant did not describe any efforts made to extinguish the fire, but claimed to have sustained some burns to his foot.”

Lightburn described to Haworth taking his shoes off and stepping on “burning rubber,” for reasons unclear to Haworth and not clarified in the charging documents. He declined medical attention.

JR then drove Lightburn to his truck parked in nearby Wyoming, and Haworth investigated the area, where she found the motorbike, scorched land, a burned helmet and other evidence that backed Lightburn’s explanation.