FOREST LAKE, Minn. (WCCO) — A Forest Lake firefighter will spend 76 days in jail starting on Monday,  after pleading guilty to wildfire arson.

John David Berken, 42, pleaded guilty to the fire on April 6, 2009 that burned more than 1,500 acres in and around the Carlos Avery Wildfire Refuge, which is north of the Twin Cities.

He will spend 76 days in jail and pay $76,000 in restitution through a plea deal he accepted on Thursday. Under his plea deal, Berken doesn’t admit guilt but agrees there’s enough evidence to convict him.

According to the criminal complaint, witnesses say Berken set the fire in April by launching fireworks out of the passenger window of his car window. The witness called 911 and gave police the license plate number and a description of Berken.

Authorities traced the license plate to Berken and found fireworks in Berken’s home, plus residue on Berken’s car window and on his fire gloves.

Berken was arrested while helping to fight the blaze, which forced some people to evacuate their homes but didn’t destroy any buildings.

Before announcing his sentence, Judge Douglas Meslow told Berken how the crime endangered fellow firefighters.

The conviction prevents Berken from ever serving as a firefighter again.

“We felt 95 percent sure that we would win this case, but when you have a family you can’t risk five or 10 years in jail versus 76 days,” Berken said. “If I had done this I would agree with the chief, it would take away from the department’s honor, but I didn’t do this.”

Berken is a decorated firefighter who has been with the Forest Lake department since 2005. In 2006, he and three other firefighters were honored for rescuing a snowmobiler in the St. Croix River.

In 1991, records show he was convicted of calling the Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, adopting a Middle Eastern accent and threatening to blow it up.

In a separate incident, he allegedly contacted an airport traffic control tower and told controllers that the pilot of his aircraft had a heart attack and that he needed help landing the plane.

Investigators searched his apartment and found a radio transmitter and other equipment. He was sentenced in federal court to a year in prison for making false radio transmissions.

Court records also indicate Berken has several check-forgery and theft convictions and served about 20 months in prison in the mid-1990s.

Comments (14)
  1. HangHim says:

    Are you kidding me, 76 days in jail only?!?! Why the hell did they even let him become a firefighter, didn’t they check his criminal background.

  2. Fed Up says:

    Sounds like a real quality individual.

  3. scott says:

    Is he still working for the forest lake fire dept? I dont see anything that says he was let go.

    1. Monica says:

      Its amazing how people dont read the story then asks a stupid question…

      “The conviction prevents Berken from ever serving as a firefighter again”

  4. Tom says:

    what the hell is wrong with Forest Lake Fire dept for haveing someone like this on the dept.???

    1. monti gesino says:

      people can be two faced.

  5. PJO says:

    John Berken got on the fire department by petioning to mayor of Forest Lake The fire chief didn’t even want him on the department but was ordered by the mayor to put him on. Yes they run background checks, as far as I know he isn’t on the department anymore and their is nothing wrong with the forest lake fire department, they are all good and decent firefighters. The fire chief was ordered to put John Berken on and the fire chief carried out that order. The rumor mill says that John Berken “donated’ a truck to the city and that is why he became a firefighter. The mayor at the time Mayor Smith, did not get re-elected. The mayor of Forest lake has now is just as crooked but in a different way.

  6. Pennie says:

    Nate, I personally know some members of the Forest Lake Fire Department and none of them are “drunks”. Gary ” Sig” Sigfrinius. is a very well know, very respected and a dedicated firefighter. l think maybe Chief Sig denied your application to be a firefighter and now you are getting your revenge by bashing him.

    1. Just Say'n says:

      Nate is leaning towards a slander or libel suit….Grow up and learn how to post remarks without defaming individuals. You might be bunking with Berken.

  7. Keeping it real in Minnesota says:

    What was it that SMOKEY BEAR said?……don’t play with matches???….LOL

  8. eric says:

    Who knew we had all this drama going on in sleepy lil’ ol’ Forest Lake?!

  9. Former FLake Resident says:

    @ Eric – Dude, you have NO IDEA!

  10. Blaa Blaa Blaa says:

    Berken appears to have some serious mental issues. He can’t even own up to the crime he was charged with even with overwhelming evidence.

  11. Nate says:

    Again I think anoka county showed what they thought their chances were when they started out asking fir ten years and then offered 76 days of work release just to say they got a conviction!! Kind of makes me think they didn’t want this trial to happen for fear they would have major egg on their face!!

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