Arson investigated as possible cause of NC wildfires, officials say

ASHEVILLE, N.C. (WNCN/AP/WBTV) – Officials say arson is being investigated as the possible cause of more than 20 wildfires in a national forest in North Carolina.

UPDATE: NC mountain wildfires exceed 23,000 acres as 6th county orders evacuations

A division of the U.S. Forest Service says the fires have been burning on more than 25 square miles in the Nantahala National Forest in the western part of North Carolina.

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No arrests have been reported in those North Carolina fires, but arson arrests have been made in Tennessee and Kentucky.

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Jason Harvey with the Sequatchie County Sheriff’s Office said on Friday that Andrew Scott Lewis of Chattanooga is charged with three counts of setting fire to person property and one count of vandalism over $250,000.

The charges are in connection to blazes set this week in the Smith Mountain and Blue Sewanee Mountain areas outside Chattanooga that have burned 300 acres and threatened several homes.

Harvey said Lewis was developed as a suspect based on a tip from a citizen. He said Lewis was taken into custody on Thursday and admitted to starting the fires.

Police say a man arrested for arson in eastern Kentucky confessed to setting a fire to draw attention to his Facebook page.

Jenkins Police Chief James Stephens said 21-year-old Johnny Mullins is facing a charge of second-degree arson for the blaze in Letcher County. He said Mullins would post selfie videos on Facebook from the scene of various fires, delivering what he called a “Weather Outlook” segment for his viewers.

In his last video, posted on Nov. 6, Mullins warned people in eastern Kentucky to “be extremely careful if you’re out there,” and got 2,900 views.

The chief told The Associated Press on Friday that Mullins told him he started the fire he was charged with earlier this week “because he enjoyed the attention he got from the Facebook stuff.”

A Georgia sheriff says tips from residents led them to four children ages 7 to 13 who authorities say touched off a wildfire near an airport by playing with a lighter in the woods and lighting dried-up leaves on fire.

The Paulding County Sheriff’s Office says the 120-acre blaze began Tuesday near Paulding County’s airport, about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta.

Sheriff’s officials said in a statement Friday that the children tried to extinguish the blaze, but it quickly spread because of the extremely dry conditions.

The sheriff said the children will be enrolled in the Youth Firesetter Intervention Program, a court-sanctioned program sponsored by the Georgia Firefighter Burn Foundation.

Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency Thursday for 25 North Carolina counties in response to the wildfires.

Clay and Cherokee counties moved into “exceptional drought” conditions, the highest level of drought, with a total of nine other counties in the second-highest level, extreme drought.

McCrory said in a statement that there are more than 20 active wildfires in the western portion on the state. They are a result of the drought conditions.

The state of emergency is in effect for 25 counties including Alexander, Avery, Buncombe, Burke, Caldwell, Catawba, Cherokee, Clay, Cleveland, Gaston, Graham, Haywood, Henderson, Jackson, Lincoln, Macon, Madison, McDowell, Mitchell, Polk, Rutherford, Swain, Transylvania, Watauga and Yancey counties.

There have been evacuations ordered in Clay, Graham, Macon, Rutherford and Swain counties.

At South Mountain State Park in Burke County, Rangers said more than 300 acres are burning. The Forest Service said they have it 40 percent contained.

The department is bringing in single-engine air tankers to help douse flames.

About 20 miles away in Morganton, residents said they started to smell and see the smoke Thursday evening.

“You could see it on the mountain how hazy it was when the sun was hitting it, said Diamond Bordner.

Kailey Gowan said her neighborhood in Morganton looked like “dark smokiness when trees get caught on fire or when someone lights up a forest,” who added, the smell “was pretty bad.”

In Caldwell County, people who live in the Highland Meadows sub-division off Zacks Fork Road were finally allowed back home Thursday evening.
Rangers said a 65 acre wild fire got too close – they said it’s the closest call they’ve had this year.

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“We’re just going back in – it’s our weekend home. We’re just really pleased that the fire department did an amazing job and saved our homes” said Ron Freeman.

Freeman lives in Charlotte. He said his neighbor’s text about the wild fire near their homes left him a bit nervous.

“Sure – but I’m just real pleased. The fire department – no one got hurt. No one lost their home.”

“The fire got within 20 yards of one home, another half-dozen homes it got about one tenth of a mile” said Rusty Dellinger, a Caldwell County Ranger with the N.C. Forest Service.

Dellinger said Rangers have contained the fire and will spend the night keeping an eye on it. He said Friday’s wind and dry conditions are worrying him.

“That may contribute to some of those hidden embers potentially escaping and causing the fire to escape our containment lines and threaten homes once again” Dellinger said.

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