USA — Alabama’s woods are more likely to be on fire in winter than any other season, and arson is the No. 1 cause, according to the Alabama Forestry Commission.
From Oct. 1, 2007, through Sept. 30, 2008, intentionally set fires made up about 36 percent of the state’s 2,449 wildfires, commission figures show. Those 896 fires burned 15,047 acres.
“There are as many reasons for people setting fires in the woods as you can think of,” said Craig Hill, chief of the law enforcement division of the forestry commission.
Hill said fires are sometimes set by people who have disagreements with neighboring property owners over property lines. Also, it’s not unheard of for members of hunting clubs to get upset if the land they lease has timber harvested, which can affect hunting, he said. And then there are the fires set by pyromaniacs — people who just want to see something burn, Hill said.
A lot of the time arsonists are driven by anger or “just plain meanness,” he added. “Some folks just get it in their heads that they want to burn somebody out.”
And it’s this time of year — from late fall through early spring — that landowners need to be most watchful. Cold weather has killed vegetation in the woods, making good tinder for fire to spread. Weather conditions also come into play. Humidity levels are usually down and winds often increase in the winter, which drives fire farther and faster than in the spring and summer.
When investigating woods fires, experienced investigators can quickly determine if arson is the cause, Hill said. Where and how the fire started are the biggest indicators.
“You rule out the other causes, if they are natural or accidental, like a brush pile fire getting out of hand,” he said. “If the investigation shows some form of accelerant was used, then it’s pretty obvious you are dealing with an arson fire.”
During the investigation, witness accounts are often the key in breaking a case.
“A witness doesn’t have to actually see somebody start a fire to be helpful to the investigation,” Hill said. “Since most of these fires are in rural areas, people in the community know what is normal and what isn’t. They may have noticed a truck in the area that didn’t belong, or give us a description of somebody that was seen in the area. The investigators can go from there.”
Intentionally set wildfires can be extremely costly to landowners, but it’s hard to put a dollar amount on the damage, Hill said. Some fires cover mostly fields with little or no damage to trees. Other fires roar through mature stands, where damage can easily add up to tens of thousands of dollars.
William W. “Walt” Sellers lives in Ramer in south Montgomery County and owns about 800 acres of timber in Montgomery and Crenshaw counties. Wildfires are one of his main concerns.
“A wildfire can just devastate a stand,” he said. “I use controlled burns to keep the level of fuel down in the woods, to help prevent wildfires.”
Sellers said a large portion of his management program involves fire control and prevention.
“When a big part of your livelihood comes form timber, you are going to be aware of the danger of fire, and do everything you can to prevent fire,” he said.
But the key word for those trying to prevent wildfires through controlled burns is “controlled.”
Burning brush and other materials and having it get out of control was the second most common cause of woods fires in Alabama in fiscal year 2008. Those 810 fires burned 7,102 acres, records show. Out-of-control burns accounted for about 33 percent of the fires reported during the period.
Woods fires also can be caused by lightning strikes, campfires getting out of hand and even railroad cars going down the tracks.
“The brakes on railroad cars get very hot,” Hill said. “When the engineer applies the brakes, it often throws off red-hot pieces of metal from the brakes. If that hot hunk of metal lands in the right place, it can easily cause a fire.”
However, intentionally set fires are still the primary cause of woods fires in the state. On average during the past four years, 42 percent of the wildfires in Alabama have been caused by arson.
And it’s not just a problem in Alabama. Landowners and authorities in other Southern states are dealing with the same issues.
In Georgia, there are about 8,000 woods fires a year, with careless debris burning being the most common cause at 48 percent. Arson is the second most common cause, at 17 percent, said Alan Dozier, chief of the forestry protection division of the Georgia Forestry Commission. In 2007 a large chunk of southeast Georgia went up in smoke.
“We caught about 12 people in a five-week time frame and charged them with arson,” Dozier said. “Until then, intentionally setting a fire in the woods was a misdemeanor. After 2007 people saw the seriousness of arson-related woods fires. This year, setting fire to the woods became a felony.” The crime is also a felony in Alabama.
Arson is the No. 1 cause of woods fires in Mississippi, according to that state’s forestry commission. In an average year, 3,991 fires occur in the Magnolia State, burning 58,790 acres. Making just a few arrests clears up a large number of fires, according to a report titled “Woods Arson Cost in Mississippi” on the commission’s Web site.
“Because many woods arsonists are responsible for multiple fires per year for multiple years, a few key arrests can prove very beneficial to the state in terms of both safety and fiscal responsibility,” the report states.
For the past five years, arson fires have resulted in the most acreage burned in Tennessee, said Tim Phelps, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s forestry division. In 2006, there were 2,198 fires that burned 30,801 acres in the state, according to the forestry division. Of those fires, 714 were arson-related, burning 17,926 acres, compared with 1,082 debris fires, which burned 9.830 acres.
“Arson fires cause more damage because they are set with that intention,” Phelps said. “If someone is burning a brush pile and the fire gets out of control, they call the authorities quickly. Most of the time we only discover the arson-caused fires when they have grown to cover more acres.”
Florida has two distinct fire seasons — the spring and summer when lightning strikes cause the most blazes, and the fall and winter, when people are the root of the problem, said Terrance McElroy, spokesman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
From January to November of this year, the state has seen 3,008 fires cover 185,478 acres, according to the department.
“During our non-lightning season, I would say substantially more than half of the fires are caused by humans,” McElroy said.
“Some of that is carelessness with debris burning or not controlling campfires. But I would say a large portion of those fires were intentionally set.”
In Alabama, intentionally setting woods or grasslands on fire is a felony that carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years in prison and up to $5,000 in fines, said Elishia Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the state’s forestry agency.
To help catch culprits, the Alabama Forestry Commission is adding an expert. Blaze is a young bloodhound who is being trained to sniff out firebugs. The dog and his handler are currently training in South Carolina.
“He is going to be a man-tracker,” Hill said. “It’s amazing what a bloodhound can do to follow a trail somebody left. Forestry commissions in Virginia and West Virginia have been using bloodhounds for years in their investigations of arson fires. They have had tremendous success.”
Since woods fires take place in rural areas, it’s hard for authorities to find witnesses.
“The bloodhound can follow a trail left by someone that is days old. There have even been documented cases of bloodhounds successfully tracking people who have driven off in vehicles,” Hill said.
“You can wear gloves to hide your fingerprints, you can work at night so chances are people won’t see you. But it’s almost impossible to not leave behind human scent.”