Listen to the story here.
“Hazard. Go ahead 217. There’s a fire on South Fork. Get ready.”
This is the Division of Forestry’s dispatch office in Hazard, in southeastern Kentucky. Christy Whitaker, chief forester for the region, takes a call about a new fire that’s broken out in a neighboring county. Eight fires have already flared up today, the first sunny, windy day in a while. And forest rangers already know that most of them were set deliberately.
“I’m ready. Go ahead with your check point, lat and long. Be 37.55240 by 83….”
Whitaker notes the location on a worksheet while her dispatcher adds it to the growing list on a whiteboard. Whitaker would rather focus on the other aspects of her job. She’d rather be outside, showing landowners how to care for their forests. Or teaching school kids about trees. But during Kentucky’s spring and fall fire seasons, she knows she’ll be glued to this desk, coordinating the crews and equipment that fight wildfires. The Division of Forestry shoulders the responsibility to fight fires on private forest lands, which most forests in Kentucky are. But they have to rely on other agencies, like state police, to investigate and enforce laws.
“And have you got South Fork contained? Ok. How many acres? And…arson? Alright, sounds good Gabriel. Thank you.”
Most forest fires in Kentucky—60 percent—are the work of arsonists. Over the past 10 years, they’ve scorched an area the size of nearly two metro Louisvilles. And Whitaker says they’re taking a toll on the health of forests and diminishing the value of timber.
“The majority of the property that we look at has been damaged by fire. You know when you’re going to look at it, instead of seeing a tree 20 inches round, solid, you find a tree that has, you know, fire had gotten up in it and it’s hollow. But it takes several times. You know most areas we run into have been burned five, six times over the last ten years.”
The impacts of all that burning include damaging the long-term health of forests and destroying wildlife habitat. But they also include endangering lives and homes, and costing the state millions of dollars every year. University of Kentucky forest ecologist Mary Arthur says foresters sometimes use fire to boost a forest’s health and help along new growth. But they ignite those prescribed fires within specific parameters. They take into account weather, wind, soil moisture. Arthur says arson fires could inadvertently be set during those conditions and therefore cause less damage.
“But they also might be set at times when you’re well outside those prescription parameters, and could therefore create hotter fires, more intense fires, fires that would be outside of the ecological effects that would acceptable from a prescribed or managed fire perspective.”
Arthur says unmanaged fires burning the same swath of forest repeatedly can cause another, less obvious kind of damage to the forest floor. They can burn away the rich layer of nutrients beneath the leaf cover. That makes it harder for forests to regenerate and to resist erosion.
James Burnett spends his days tracking down arsonists and investigating the scenes they leave behind. At his state police post in Hazard, Burnett says arson is an old problem here.
“Fire has always been used in eastern Kentucky, for the biggest reason is probably revenge. People get mad at each other and instead of shooting them they say, well, we’ll catch them gone and burn their house, their barn, their woods, whatever.”
But Burnett says he comes across other motives. He’s caught members of the seasonal fire crews setting blazes just to keep a job. Marijuana growers burning off the leaf cover so they can plant their crop. And then there are the pyromaniacs.
“Most true pyros, when they set a fire, their eyes actually glaze.”
But trying to find a suspect—with any kind of motive—is like trying to find the match he or she might have left behind on a charred mountain side. Burnett says it’s rare to find any physical evidence. But it’s even rarer to coax a witness to speak up.
“I’ve been doing this job 28 years with the state police. And they’ll say Investigator Burnett, I’ll talk to you about anything you want to talk about, but I don’t know nothing about this fire. And you turn your recorder off or you quit taking your notes. And you ask them why. And they say, I don’t want my house to burn.”
In 2005, the Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet convened a task force to tackle the state’s arson problem. Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Susan Bush chaired the task force which came up with several recommendations. One was a major media campaign designed to change cultural attitudes about arson. But topping that list was a law enforcement unit dedicated to investigating wildland arson fires.
“That was one of our key expansion items in our budget. But that is considered an expansion budget, which is new money, and there’s no new money available, obviously.”
No new money for many of their recommendations. So Bush says the department relies on state police and even Fish and Wildlife law enforcement to patrol areas arsonists often target. And they’ve tried to teach rangers and foresters how to preserve evidence at a scene. So many other agencies pitch in to help deal with forest arson that it’s difficult to say what the real costs are. Bush says the most transparent cost is what Forestry receives to fight fires.
“The cost of suppressing wildland fires comes out of the state budget. Division of Forestry is given $250,000 annually, and anything over that comes out of necessary government expenses.”
In other words, taxpayers’ dollars. And those “necessary governmental expenses” regularly exceed what the Division is given by millions. From 2000 to 2006, Kentucky spent more than $20 million dollars fighting forest fires.
At the district office in Hazard, two rangers have returned from a fire-spotting flight over several counties. And district ranger Shelby Conway is getting ready to head out after a busy day of tracking fires. But he pauses for a moment to consider the question: are they fighting a losing battle?
“I don’t think there’s anybody who works for the division is ok with the status quo of what we have. You know, we continually educate the kids in school. And, you know what, I feel like we’re doing the best we can do with what we got at this time.”
As he leaves, more calls come in. And the radio keeps chirping. Spring fire season lasts until the end of April.