Law enforcement stepped up to combat forest arson

By Kathy Helms-Hughes

STAR STAFF

   The Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Division of Forestry, has teamed up with the State Fire Marshal's office and the Department of Safety to deter arson activity on forestlands.
   The State Fire Marshal's office is offering up to $1,500 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of arsonists through its toll-free Arson Hotline, 1-800-762-3017.
   "Last year, we experienced one of the worst fire seasons in more than a decade, but because of law enforcement activity we were able to make 29 arrests in those cases," said Agriculture Commissioner Dan Wheeler.
   "We have stepped up our investigations and will prosecute those responsible for destroying property and threatening lives to the fullest extent of the law," he said.
   Oct. 15 marked the official beginning of the forest fire season in Tennessee. Since its start, approximately 200 fires have burned more than 5,100 acres, mostly in East Tennessee. On Halloween night alone, Roan Mountain Volunteer Fire Department responded to 14 fire calls, including a healthy forest fire.
   Five dozer crews made up of about 25 firefighters from Middle and West Tennessee have assisted with fire suppression efforts in the southeast area of the state where fires consumed approximately 2,300 acres in 24 hours. The USDA Forest Service also sent a 20-man firefighting crew to assist with a 400-acre fire in Grundy County, while additional crews were sent out to other areas.
   Arson task force teams for the Agriculture Crime Unit are operating in areas experiencing high fire activity. Tennessee Highway Patrol also has been assisting with increased presence of law enforcement officers and helicopter surveillance.
   "It's not unusual to have elevated fire activity this time of year," according to John Kirksey, forestry fire protection chief.
   "We need the public's help in reducing fire activity by reporting any suspected arson activity and by calling their local forestry office before conducting any outdoor burning," he said.
   State law requires citizens to obtain a permit from the forestry service between Oct. 15 and May 15 each year before conducting any open, outdoor burns. Additional restrictions by local governments may apply in some areas. Citizens should contact their forestry office or fire department before burning.