Battle blazes on with wildfires

By ALLEN BLAIR — The Independent

Olive Hill — A new state task force aimed at combatting arson fires in Kentucky’s woods will spend five hours here today talking about solutions.

“Most people think the problem is lightning,” said Gwen Holt of the Kentucky Division of Forestry.

California and other western state’s blazes — where many of this state’s firefighters were recently dispatched — are often touched off by the weather-induced sparks.

“But lightning is just a tiny, tiny portion here,” Holt said. Purposefully-set fires make up the majority of Kentucky’s wildfires.

About 99 percent are human caused, either sparked by out-of-control debris fires or burning off fields; about 60 percent are arson, according to Division of Forestry data.

Compare that to 1965 data when only 14 percent of wildfires were arson, and you can see why state government has started meeting with local officials, law enforcement and others around the commonwealth.

“We have a whole body of folks trying to work together to come up with solutions to reducing this arson problem,” Holt said. “One thing is increasing enforcement by enlisting other agencies — more eyes and ears out there.”

Today’s Wildland Arson Task Force meeting at Carter Caves is the group’s third in the state.

The task force has picked areas central to trouble spots to meet, Holt said, adding that the state has some problems in the Carter and Greenup area usually during fire season.

Task force members are forest rangers, Kentucky State Police, sheriff’s associations and county attorneys.

Those scheduled to speak today include state commissioners and cabinet leaders about the task force itself as well as state fire statutes and penalties; and Carter County Attorney Mike Fox will address why arson cases are rejected and what makes a good case. An open discussion period will focus on: What are the law enforcement needs in Kentucky, and do Kentucky’s existing laws need changed?

Overall the task force is charged with developing a plan to increase the state’s enforcement of wildland arson.

At its last meeting, members heard representatives from Virginia, where they use bloodhounds to sniff out arsonists, Holt said.

The group looks at other states, all ideas, and wants the public’s ideas, she said.

“And we’re hoping the task force will give us legislative force, and maybe (the General Assembly) will put some resources behind it to increase our enforcement capabilities,” Holt said.

The Division of Forestry, while its rangers can cite people for wildfires, currently does not have a dedicated enforcement branch, she said.

“All these things are being looked at,” Holt said.

All because arson in the forest not only is a problem, but is a people problem.

“Unlike out west where many forest fires are lightning caused, here that’s not it; it’s human, and unfortunately some of it’s just malicious behavior.”

ALLEN BLAIR can be reached at [email protected] or (606) 326-2657.