Fire burns 400 acres near Cherokee
A blaze in Cherokee has been fully contained, but not before burning up 400 acres of forest in the Qualla Boundary.
“It was more than likely arson,” said James Condon, fire management officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Cherokee. “There was no lightning strikes in the area and there was no brush being burned.”
Dubbed the Red Tail fire, the blaze started Friday afternoon (Feb. 6) off of Adams Creek Road near the Mount Noble Fire Tower. Crews from the BIA, Cherokee Fire Department and Great Smoky Mountains National Park launched the initial attack, later joined by a helicopter and helipack crew from the U.S. Forest Service at Glassy Mountain, the North Carolina BRIDGE crew and a team of smoke jumpers out of McCall, Idaho, who just happened to be doing a rotation in Clayton, Georgia.
By the time the fire was contained Sunday night, about 2,500 manhours had been invested, Condon estimated, involving about 50 people. Though there are no estimates yet as to the value of the forest burned, he expects the cost of the firefighting effort to total about $30,000.
That was not the only fire to light up on the Qualla Boundary over the weekend. Five smaller fires, together totaling less than an acre in area, ignited Saturday morning. All were located just off a road, which strengthens the case for arson. Three were off of U.S. 19 in Soco Valley, while the other two were in Yellowhill and Big Cove.
“I suspect they were in a car,” Condon said. “They could have been on an ATV or motorcycle.”
Saturday morning was cool enough, however, that those fires didn’t amount to much.
Another unrelated fire cropped up Saturday as well, burning 4 acres when a leaf pile on Wright’s Creek Road got out of control. The Hornbuckle fire occurred in the afternoon, and though it was contained within an hour, it required resources at the same time crews were battling the Red Tail fire.
The fires are all contained, but it will likely be a while before the BIA can definitively declare them arson and even longer — if ever — before a suspect can be identified. Arson cases are hard to solve anyway, and the BIA office in Cherokee doesn’t have its own wildland fire investigator. Instead, they have to order investigators in from elsewhere.
The same rainy weather that helped firefighters contain the blaze has also made investigation more difficult, as the raindrops and wind mussed the patterns of leaves and grass that investigators read to help determine cause. That means there’s not a huge rush to get an investigator on site, Condon said, because natural forces have already altered the scene.
He’s planning to wait until the weather dries up again so that the investigator will be on hand to look into any other fires that pop up while he’s examining the cause of the Red Tail fire. Condon would expect to have someone in by March 1.
“That person or people come with their own vehicles, and they can just do more patrolling,” Condon said.
Having someone with those qualifications onsite during the initial attack is vital to increasing the chances of pinpointing the person responsible for intentionally set fires, Condon said. Those cases are already difficult to solve, so throw the passage of time into the mix, and it gets even harder.
The Cherokee BIA has an investigation trainee, but that person is not yet qualified to conduct investigations solo. In addition to training someone internally, Condon said, the BIA is working with Cherokee law enforcement and natural resources enforcement to send some of their people to wildland fire investigation training this summer.
No one was hurt in this fire, but that’s not always the case — hence why it’s important to have the people on hand to figure out whodunit in future flares.
“There could be a lot of bad outcomes from somebody starting the fire,” Condon said. “We always want to get out there and find out who did it. We just need to get out there and get more resources for that.”
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To report arson, call 800.47.ARSON or visit www.wetip.com. Tips are taken anonymously, and information that can lead to a conviction is eligible for a reward.