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Virginia seeks help finding arsonists

KEVIN CASTLE • Mar 15, 2007 at 12:36 PM

The trail of arsonists has spread over four counties and thousands of acres in Southwest Virginia, and manpower to suppress the fires has been pushed to the brink.

"As we approach Friday, we've had some forest personnel work 21 days straight," said a strained Ed Stoots, regional forester for the Virginia Department of Forestry's Abingdon Division.

Below-average rainfall has contributed to above-average fire activity in the 13-county region, bringing firefighting crews from around Virginia into the southwest corner from one fire line to another.

However, the workload has been increased due to the fact arsonists have decided to bring their unfortunate habit into the dry grass fields.

"We currently have 20 suspicious fires under examination," said Stoots, who added that department investigators were in Scott County Wednesday trying to piece together clues from an arson-sparked fire outside Dungannon Tuesday that was limited to just 120 acres because of firefighters' quick action.

"Luckily we had a helicopter ready here in Abingdon on Tuesday, so we were able to get to Scott County quick enough to get personnel on the ground to surround the fire. It was deliberately set, we do know that," said Stoots.

All total, 2,000 acres have been reduced to charred, blackened soil due to the work of arsonists since Jan. 1 and account for half of the 4,000 acres that have burned in the region.

Of the 20 cases that are being investigated, five are in Lee County - all in the Blackwater community near Cumberland Gap National Park.

"It's not the first time we've had arson cases in Blackwater," Stoots said.

The case of one particular fire in Lee County that burned more than 600 acres near the Rose Hill community has come to a close, as law enforcement and forestry officials received a confession earlier this week from a resident in that area.

"He said that he was doing some brush and runoff burning before 4 p.m., and it got away from him. A small fire in the back yard grew into something 600 acres long," said Stoots.

The name of the suspect was being withheld.

State forestry officials announced Wednesday they will offer up to $2,000 in reward money for information that leads to the conviction of those responsible for the latest batch of arson fires.

The Virginia 4 p.m. burning law stipulates that all outdoor burning must be done after 4 p.m. - or later if property owners are able.

"We are trying to create a new catchphrase, ‘give us another hour.' Because of the time change, what used to be 4 p.m. is now 5 p.m. The humidity is still low at that point, which helps fires spread quickly, so we are asking people to just hold off on burning for another hour if possible," said Stoots.

If that brush pile in the back yard does grow into a major fire that has to be doused by a local fire department, you will be held responsible for the cost of suppression under Virginia law.

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