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Fire investigation ongoing; $2,500 reward being offered





It's been two weeks since rural firefighters last were called out to battle the work of an arsonist, but the criminal investigation hasn't slowed.

Now, a growing reward fund of at least $2,500 -- at last count Tuesday -- is being offered in the hope of prompting someone to step forward with information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for as many as 20 fires in Ellis County.

Investigators aren't willing to provide too many details into what they've uncovered so far, but Ellis County Sheriff Ed Harbin was willing Tuesday to say detectives have interviewed "numerous people" and subpoenas have been issued to obtain evidence that will help in the investigation.

"I don't want to say what we're doing," Harbin said of why he's releasing few details. "I don't want to give anyone an upper hand."

So far, Harbin went on to say, the sheriff's office already has authorized nearly 200 hours in overtime for deputies in the last month during the search for the arsonist.

Harbin, along with Ellis County Rural Fire Director Richard Klaus and sheriff's detectives Brad Ricke and Scott Braun, sat down Tuesday with The Hays Daily News to talk about the ongoing investigation.

The Kansas Fire Marshal's office last month said "there have been 20 fires that have been ruled incendiary or crimes of arson."

Those fires started March 6 and continued for another 10 days, culminating in a massive grass fire that burned nearly 1,200 acres of grassland in northwest Ellis County and jeopardized firefighters in at least two trucks that were overtaken by smoke and flames.

In response, Chris Miller, a rural Hays resident and a victim of the arsonist, launched an effort to start a reward fund to solicit information on the fires.

"Right now, we have $2,500," he said. "We're collecting money to provide an incentive to somebody to come forward and provide information."

The reward will be paid upon the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for the fires.

Miller hopes the reward will continue to grow and provide an even greater incentive for someone to step forward. He continues to solicit money for the fund and even has asked if the Ellis County Commission would contribute $500 to the fund. He's not yet heard back from the commissioners.

While Miller is one of several victims of the fires, personally losing property worth more than $50,000, he's trying to keep the focus on using the reward as a way to halt the fires.

Miller said he lost a recreational vehicle, a jet ski, an enclosed trailer and an all-terrain vehicle in a fire that came within 100 feet of his residence.

"If the wind would have been out of a different direction, it would have been much worse," he said.

While he won't recover all he's lost, Miller said he's hoping the reward will help get information to prevent anyone else from becoming a victim.

"Already, there are 20 of them that are suspicious," Miller said of the fires. "I don't want there to be 21."

That's what Harbin is hoping for as well.

Harbin wouldn't say Tuesday how many people have been interviewed or how many subpoenas have been issued in the course of the investigation.

Klaus said the 20 fires ruled "incendiary or crimes of arson" by the fire marshal's office include a series of small fires.

Before the fire marshal's announcement, the number generally had been set at 16.

"Anywhere from 16 to 20," Klaus said. "Because there may be a spot where they burned 5 feet."

Most of the small fires were southeast of Hays.

The 16 fires, however, were larger, and in some cases caused substantial damage.

Neither Harbin nor Klaus would say how the fires were started.

"They were probably started in several different ways," Harbin said.

He wouldn't elaborate.

Harbin, Klaus and the detectives said residents should remain vigilant and call in any suspicious activity.

* Anyone with information about the fires can call the sheriff's office at (785) 625-1040 and ask for either Ricke or Braun.

To contribute to the reward fund, call Miller at (785) 625-6409.