A Mesa man has been charged with starting a wildfire that burned about 28 square miles near Payson after he fired a shotgun loaded with a flame-throwing shell, federal prosecutors announced Monday.
Steven Craig Shiflet was target shooting with a group of friends at Sycamore Creek in May when he pointed the gun at a soda box in a cleared area, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Phoenix. Smoke soon appeared in the brush, and the group couldn't extinguish the blaze, later dubbed the Sunflower Fire.
The packaging of the shotgun shell warned of an extreme fire hazard, saying flames would shoot 100 feet and burn everything in their path.
Shiflet told investigators he called 911 from his cellphone to report the fire and was told to leave the area.
Investigators tracked down the group through a license plate number on their vehicle. The five men in the group, who were out camping for a bachelor party, told nearly identical stories, authorities said.
Shiflet faces three charges, each of which carries a maximum penalty of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine if he's convicted. There was no answer at potential phone listings for him and he did not have an attorney listed with the federal court.
The nearly 18,000-acre fire in the high wilderness area of the Tonto National Forest hasn't been active in weeks but remains 80 percent contained. Fire officials don't expect to declare it fully contained until the area receives significant moisture.