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Updated 10 hours ago
A judge on Monday ordered a New Florence man accused of setting 11 wildfires in eastern Westmoreland County to stand trial on arson-related charges.
Officials believe Dylan Alan Miller, 18, set the fires over a six-week period last spring.
The number of intentionally set fires in March and April concerned investigators because of “extraordinarily dry” weather conditions, testified Brian Vinski, forest fire specialist supervisor with the state Bureau of Forestry.
“I knew if I had ignition ... that we were going to struggle containing and extinguishing these fires,” Vinski testified during Miller's preliminary hearing, which lasted 2- 1⁄2 hours.
District Judge Denise Thiel ordered that seven counts each of arson and risking catastrophe and a single count of reckless burning be held for court. Several other charges against Miller connected to wildfires during the same period were dismissed after prosecutors didn't present evidence.
It can be difficult for fire inspectors to identify a suspect in such cases even though arson was the second-leading cause of wildfire in Pennsylvania between 2012 and 2015, according to state data. Vinski described the “spider web” of information he sifted through from multiple witnesses, fire scenes and firefighters while investigating the string of wildfires, all of which he ruled arson. The blazes cost area fire departments thousands of dollars and required the state bureau to use a helicopter in at least one case to extinguish the flames. Manpower costs can be recovered through court-ordered restitution.
Miller is accused in the following 2016 fires:
• March 1, on an abandoned camp site on state game lands just outside New Florence.
• March 17, two fires in St. Clair Township on state game lands that began near trails. A witness told investigators that Miller used a lighter to catch leaves on fire at one site and later threw a flaming napkin out a car window.
• March 30, on a hillside along Stom Road in Cook Township.
• April 2, two fires in Fairfield Township, one of which started when Miller allegedly threw a cigarette out the window of a vehicle. Firefighters knew there was an arsonist on the loose, Vinski said.
“At this point in time, we knew we had ... a problem,” he testified.
• April 2, along Claycomb Road in Ligonier Township.
• April 13, again on Stom Road, not far from the previous fire.
• April 15, along Ross Road in Ligonier Township.
• April 17, at a remote site in St. Clair Township.
• April 18, atop Laurel Mountain in Ligonier Township.
While suppressing the Laurel Mountain fire, Vinski recognized Miller — who was dressed in street clothing — because the teen had just taken one of Vinski's classes. Miller was a firefighter with Fairfield's department at the time.
During an interview with investigators, Miller denied involvement in some of the fires, either stating that he wasn't at the scene or pointing the finger at friends, Vinski testified. But when discussing the April 18 fire — which Miller is accused of starting with a road flare — he started crying.
“It hit him emotionally for some reason,” Vinski testified.
Two witnesses and friends of Miller's testified Monday that they never saw Miller set a fire or heard him talk about it.
Jacob Smithley, 17, testified that he saw Miller light a paper towel and throw it out a car window on Stom Road. The pair was together later on Ross Road when Smithley testified that he gave into peer pressure.
“(Miller) told me to light a napkin and throw it out the window,” he said.
Smithley testified that he saw road flares in a bucket in the backseat of the pickup truck Miller drove sometimes.
Defense attorney Wayne DeLuca asked that the majority of charges against Miller be dismissed, mainly for a lack of evidence.
“Every fire is dangerous, there's no question about that,” DeLuca argued about the March 1 fire. “But this fire was started in an old fire pit. This wasn't a fire set out in the brush.”
A criminal complaint originally filed in juvenile court connected to some of the blazes was part of the adult accusations before Thiel Monday, according to Assistant District Attorney Leo Ciaramitaro. Miller turned 18 in March 2016.
After the hearing, Vinski said fire inspectors will “aggressively pursue” any similar offenses in the county's wildlands this fire season.
“Anybody that commits these acts — we're going to come after them,” he said.
Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374 or email@example.com.
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