By Steve Olafson
OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - A state forest ranger has admitted to setting dozens of fires that burned thousands of acres in a protected wildlife management area in 2010 and 2011, an Oklahoma prosecutor said on Wednesday.
Mike Malenski, 39, a veteran forest ranger who oversaw a wildlife management area in northeast Oklahoma, faces 56 counts of arson.
Malenski, arrested and charged last May, began setting fires in February 2010, said B.J. Baker, a Cherokee County prosecutor. Some of the fires consumed up to 1,300 acres, while others were much smaller, according to court documents.
After a year of unexplained fires, investigators placed a global positioning system device on Malenski's vehicle to track his movements after volunteer firefighters voiced suspicions, Baker said.
Malenski, who had worked for the Oklahoma Forestry Service for seven years, admitted setting most of the fires when questioned, Baker said.
"He said he has a fascination with fire and he basically said, 'Yes, over this time period, I set 80 percent of the fires that occurred,'" Baker said.
Malenski's wife died of natural causes before he began setting fires, leaving him with two children, said Baker, declining to elaborate on whether the wife's death was a factor in the alleged arson spree.
Malenski often just lit a piece of paper or a pile of leaves to start a fire, which would spread quickly because of drought conditions in the area, Baker said. Other times, Malenski used a grip torch, a tool used by forest rangers in performing controlled burns, he added.
Malenski's attorney and prosecutors are negotiating a possible plea bargain, Baker said.
Malenski's lawyer, Donn Baker of Tahlequah, Oklahoma, was not available for comment on Wednesday.
A preliminary court hearing for Malenski has been scheduled in March.
Malenski faces 41 counts of third-degree arson, 15 counts of fourth-degree arson and 56 counts of endangering human life. A charge of third-degree arson carries up to 15 years in prison and a $10,000 fine while fourth-degree arson carries up to 10 years in prison and a $5,000 fine. Endangering human life is punishable by up to 3 to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
(Reporting By Steve Olafson; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Greg McCune)