Of all the headlines that flashed across my computer screen last week, the one still burned on my brain came atop a press release from the Maine Department of Public Safety: “Fire Marshal Car Torched.”

That’s just wrong.

It’s also, for those of us who don’t spend a lot of time in the “other Maine,” a rare glimpse of what’s going on up there far from the beaten path of, say, Interstate 95.

It all started back in November 2010, when someone set fire to the garage at a camp on Aurora Drive in the unorganized township of Prentiss, about 25 miles northeast of Lincoln in a remote corner of Penobscot County.

The camp belongs to one Christopher Jones, 61, of Newton, N.J., who told the Bangor Daily News last week that he bought the place back before 2000 in anticipation of Y2K — that worldwide computer meltdown that was supposed to coincide with the new millennium and bring an end to the way life should be.

(Stop chuckling. I still have a genuine plastic bottle of “Y2K Water” that someone gave me in Eastport that New Year’s Eve. For reasons I can’t explain, I still haven’t cracked the seal.)

Jones, who, like the rest of us, made it into the new millennium without a scratch, told the newspaper he hadn’t visited the remote cabin in years. Didn’t have any insurance on it, either.

Which is unfortunate. The first garage fire caused minimal damage, but then on July 3, someone did it again. Then on July 20, someone burned the whole camp down.

Enter the state Fire Marshal’s Office, which mounted a surveillance operation Tuesday night as part of its ongoing investigation into all three fires.

According to Assistant Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas, the three investigators were out in the deep woods around midnight when they started picking up radio traffic from the regional communications center about a possible fire in their vicinity.

Another fire? Talk about good timing!

A short time later, Sgt. Timothy York returned to his vehicle to find it, well, on fire.

“I’ve been in the fire service now for 38 years, and it’s the first time I ever heard of such a thing,” said Thomas.

Ditto for York, who said in a telephone interview Friday that there was nothing he could do upon discovering his state-owned 2009 Chevrolet Impala lit up like a Roman candle but to call it in and, while fire crews responded from not-so-nearby Kingman, watch it burn.

A small army of fire investigators, state police, game wardens and Penobscot County sheriff’s deputies descended on the scene and before long, a state police dog picked up a scent.

A few hours later, police arrested one John Weckerly, 53, who lives about a half mile from where York’s vehicle burned.

Weckerly, charged with one count of arson, made his initial court appearance via video conference Friday from the Penobscot County Jail. Efforts to reach him at the jail were unsuccessful.

His neighbors, according to the Bangor Daily News, call Weckerly the “moped man” because he frequently drives one up and down the rural roads. They also said he’s a loner who’s often seen muttering to himself.

York said he hasn’t a clue whether his unmarked vehicle was torched because he’s a fire investigator or because, parked out in the middle of nowhere and all, it simply proved an irresistible target.

“I think (Weckerly) just came across the vehicle,” York said. “You’d have to ask him what his motivation was for burning the car.”

York was back behind the wheel of another Fire Marshal’s Office vehicle within hours — as luck would have it, another investigator recently retired and the office thus had a spare set of wheels.

As for what’s left of the burned-out car (York also lost “a whole bunch of stuff” that was inside), Thomas said the forensic work has been handed off to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives because the Fire Marshal’s Office doesn’t feel comfortable investigating a crime “in which we are actually the victim.”

Besides, they have enough work to do. More, in fact, than many Mainers might think.

Last year alone, the fire marshal’s three sergeants and 12 investigators were called to 502 fires and 41 explosions around Maine. All told, that represented $32.5 million in property losses.

But their own Chevy Impala? Seriously?

Police cars get trashed all the time — just last week, a 17-year-old girl from Stetson allegedly bashed in the windows of a Bangor police cruiser and begged to be taken to jail. (Police granted her request.)

But Thomas said Maine’s fire marshal investigators, who carry weapons and have the same powers of arrest that police do, normally manage to “work their tails off” without having to watch helplessly as their vehicle goes up in smoke.

York’s reaction to witnessing just that?

“What would your reaction be?” he asked.

I’d be … umm … surprised?

“There you go,” York said.

Arson doesn’t do this case justice.

They should tack on a charge of aggravated irony. 

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

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