‘Depressed’ 911 Dispatcher James Bartels Admitted Setting 24 Wildfires, Feds Say

A raging wildfire that last month torched some 1,300 acres of national parkland in Ohio was the handiwork of a down-in-the-dumps emergency responder who did it to keep local firefighters from getting bored, according to a criminal complaint first obtained by The Daily Beast.

James A. Bartels, a now-former 911 dispatcher for the Greenfield Township Volunteer Fire Department, is charged with “timber set afire,” the federal justice system’s version of arson. Bartels, 50, set at least 24 fires in the Wayne National Forest over several months, the complaint alleges.

Reached by phone, a dispatcher at the Greenfield Township VFD on Tuesday refused to “confirm or deny” anything about Bartels or his service record, deferring all comment to the department’s director upon their return next week.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio

Bartels, who ran unsuccessfully in 2007 to be Greenfield Township’s fiscal officer, first aroused suspicion last April, when he “discovered an unreported fire” at around 12:30 a.m., states the complaint, which was unsealed Tuesday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio.

In late October, Bartels’ pickup truck was spotted by a state natural resource officer about an hour before a wildfire broke out in the area, according to the complaint, which was filed by a U.S. Forest Service (USFS) special agent.

“On November 8, 2022, within days of Bartels’ resignation from Gallia County 911 dispatch, at least 17 fires were lit,” the complaint goes on.

An eyewitness “positively identified Bartels’ truck, a Burgundy 2021 Ford F-250, with blackout package, at two separate locations in the vicinity of multiple fire starts, within minutes of their ignition,” it says.

Two days later, the fires had combined to ravage some 1,300 acres of the Wayne National Forest, authorities said at the time.

On Dec. 8, USFS agents questioned Bartels, according to the complaint.

“During the interview, Bartels admitted to lighting multiple fires on Wayne National Forest with a lighter,” it states. “Bartels said he started the fires to give the boys something to do and to distract himself from depression.”

Investigators gave Bartels a map with all of the recent unsolved arson fires marked on it, and asked him to draw checkmarks next to the fires he started and Xs next to those he didn’t, the complaint continues. Bartels drew check marks next to 26 fires, it says, and Xs next to nine.

On Monday, the feds obtained location data from the infotainment system in Bartels’ truck, according to the complaint. Agents then plotted the coordinates on a map, which showed the vehicle had been “in close proximity to 24 fires, most of them 1 to 2 hours before they were reported to 911.”

Last year, a 911 dispatcher in the Syracuse, New York area was charged with third-degree arson after allegedly setting fire to his own home. In Southern California, the chief arson investigator for the Glendale Fire Department was charged with purposely setting some 2,000 fires throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Each year, about 100 firefighters nationwide are accused of arson, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

If convicted on a single count of timber set afire, Bartels faces up to five years in prison. The complaint does not specify how many counts Bartels will ultimately face. He does not yet have a lawyer listed in court records, and did not respond on Tuesday to a voicemail seeking comment.

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