GRAYLING -- A downstate rail company faces felony charges for allegedly sparking a massive 2008 blaze that torched about 1,300 acres of forest and several buildings in Crawford County.
Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox on Monday announced charges against Saginaw-based Lake State Railway, Inc. Cox contends the company started the April 24, 2008, wildfire in Crawford and another fire in Arenac County six days later by operating an unsafe train engine.
The engine threw sparks from its exhaust system because it was missing standard safety equipment called spark arresters, officials said.
LSR faces two felony counts of setting fire to a forest land and two misdemeanor counts of operating an engine without spark arresters.
Of the four charges, one felony and one misdemeanor count apply to fires in each county, and company officials will face hearings in separate courts in those counties, Cox spokesman Nick De Leeuw said.
LSR officials couldn't be reached for comment.
Prison time won't be possible because a corporation is being charged, De Leeuw said, but the judge could order LSR to repay damage and rescue costs.
Estimated costs of the Grayling fire total roughly $934,000 for damage and suppression efforts, Cox's office said.
The charges bring a measure of relief for local residents.
"I think for the citizens of Crawford County, it's a good thing ... I think it will ease their minds a bit, that they know what the source was," said David Stephenson, chairman of the Crawford County board of commissioners.
The fire crept close to Grayling, and some residents at the time feared it would engulf the city.
"That was way too close a call for the city of Grayling," Stephenson said.
Bob DeVries, a Grayling resident, said the fire was powerful enough that the wind carried it onto his property across Interstate 75.
Today, "it looks like it's been clear-cut," DeVries said, adding he was glad to hear charges were filed. "They have to be responsible for their actions. They have to be responsible for the areas that they cover."