The Latest: Bentley offers $5K reward for wildfire arsonist

AP News
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Posted: Nov 11, 2016 7:35 PM
The Latest: Bentley offers $5K reward for wildfire arsonist

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — 7:25 p.m.

Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has announced a $5,000 reward for anyone who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever's responsible for setting wildfires.

Bentley, in a news release Friday, said the reward is being offered to try to identify anyone who is deliberately setting the blazes.

Because of drought, all 67 counties in Alabama are under an emergency order banning all outside fires, including campfires, bonfires and trash fires. The "no burn" order will remain in effect until rescinded by the state forester.

According to the Alabama Forestry Commission there have been more than 1,400 wildfires in Alabama since Oct. 1, destroying more than 15,000 acres.

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6:30 p.m.

Dozens of residents of the northeast Georgia mountains have been told to evacuate their homes as a wildfire flared up nearby.

The Rabun County Sheriff's Office said early Friday evening that about 25 to 40 homes in the Persimmon community were affected and a shelter was being set up at a local church. The sheriff said in a statement that the shelter would be open Friday night for displaced residents.

Earlier Friday, a forest fire in western North Carolina forced evacuations in the Chimney Rock and Lake Lure communities, and shelters opened for residents in those areas.

Several wildfires have been burning across the southern Appalachian mountains, and firefighters so far have been able to keep the blazes from spreading into neighborhoods.

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5:45 p.m.

Pickens County Fire Department and the South Carolina Forestry Commission are working to contain a wildfire on Pinnacle Mountain, one of many burning in the southern Appalachians.

A statement from Pickens County Friday said about 75 people are fighting the 400-acre fire, only 10 percent of which is contained. No evacuations have been ordered yet, but emergency personnel have plans ready if people need to flee.

No structures have been affected and to prevent homes from being affected, officials are asking surrounding homeowners to clear any leaves, debris, and brush away from their homes to reduce the risk of damage should the fire spread. The Red Cross and Pickens County community members also are pitching in with food and water.

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5 p.m.

Officials say they have made an arrest in a large brush fire in southern Tennessee.

Jason Harvey with the Sequatchie County Sheriff's Office said on Friday that Andrew Scott Lewis of Chattanooga is charged with three counts of setting fire to person property and one count of vandalism over $250,000.

The charges are in connection to blazes set this week in the Smith Mountain and Blue Sewanee Mountain areas outside Chattanooga that have burned 300 acres and threatened several homes.

Harvey said Lewis was developed as a suspect based on a tip from a citizen. He said Lewis was taken into custody on Thursday and admitted to starting the fires.

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4:30 p.m.

Police say a man arrested for arson in eastern Kentucky confessed to setting a fire to draw attention to his Facebook page.

Jenkins Police Chief James Stephens said 21-year-old Johnny Mullins is facing a charge of second-degree arson for the blaze in Letcher County. He said Mullins would post selfie videos on Facebook from the scene of various fires, delivering what he called a "Weather Outlook" segment for his viewers.

In his last video, posted on Nov. 6, Mullins warned people in eastern Kentucky to "be extremely careful if you're out there," and got 2,900 views.

The chief told The Associated Press on Friday that Mullins told him he started the fire he was charged with earlier this week "because he enjoyed the attention he got from the Facebook stuff."

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4 p.m.

A Georgia sheriff says tips from residents led them to four children ages 7 to 13 who authorities say touched off a wildfire near an airport by playing with a lighter in the woods and lighting dried-up leaves on fire.

The Paulding County Sheriff's Office says the 120-acre blaze began Tuesday near Paulding County's airport, about 30 miles northwest of Atlanta.

Sheriff's officials said in a statement Friday that the children tried to extinguish the blaze, but it quickly spread because of the extremely dry conditions.

The sheriff said the children will be enrolled in the Youth Firesetter Intervention Program, a court-sanctioned program sponsored by the Georgia Firefighter Burn Foundation.

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2 p.m.

National Weather Service meteorologist Jeffrey Taylor in Greer, South Carolina, says there's only a slight chance of precipitation in the area of the forest fires.

He says there's a 20 percent chance late Sunday and early Monday, and then another 20 percent chance for the border of North Carolina and Tennessee on late Tuesday and early Wednesday.

The average rainfall for Asheville, North Carolina, in the month of November is 3.65 inches. But there's been hardly a trace of rain in Asheville this November. And year-to-date rainfall in the city is just under 30 inches — that's 10 inches below normal.

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1:30 p.m.

A forest fire has crossed its containment line in western North Carolina, forcing more evacuations.

State and federal fire officials say portions of Chimney Rock and Lake Lure communities are now under evacuation orders due to the Party Rock Fire. The evacuation was prompted by a major fire run up to and crossing the Shumont Mountain containment line Friday.

Some evacuations are mandatory while others are voluntary. Officials said they didn't have an immediate count on the number of homes involved.

Shelters are open at Bills Creek Baptist Church in Lake Lure and Greenhill Baptist Church in Rutherfordton.

Homes in Lake Lure also were evacuated earlier this week.

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1:15 p.m.

The forest fires in western North Carolina are forcing the state to close several state parks so that the people who work there can help fight the fires.

Don Reuter of the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation says the following state parks are closed starting Friday: Gorges, New River, Mount Mitchell, Elk Knob, Lake James and the Mount Jefferson State Natural Area. South Mountain and Chimney Rock state parks closed earlier.

Reuter says it's never an easy decision to close parks but the priority now is protecting life and property.

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12:30 p.m.

Authorities in two states are now investigating about two-dozen wildfires scarring southern forests as suspected arsons.

Justin Upchurch, the assistant fire chief in Rabun County, Georgia, said law officers there are searching for a man in a dark blue SUV after multiple fires started Wednesday, many of them beginning as small roadside fires. Those small fires eventually merged, and firefighters were still working to suppress the flames on Friday.

The area is less than 50 miles from the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina, where the U.S. Forest Service said more than 20 wildfires burning more than 17,000 acres are all "being investigated for suspected arson."

It's unknown whether any of the suspicious blazes are connected, and no arrests have been announced.

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The above item has been corrected; Upchurch's first name is Justin, not Jason.

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12 p.m.

Environmental officials say smoke blowing down from wildfires in the North Carolina mountains have made Charlotte's air unhealthy for people with breathing problems.

The Charlotte Observer reports (http://bit.ly/2g2Uc9g) that the local air quality index is Code Orange, meaning concentrations of fine particles from smoke can aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions.

Mike Abraczinskas, deputy director of the state Air Quality Division, said if residents can see heavy haze and smell smoke, then air quality is not good and they should limit outdoor activities.

That apparently isn't stopping organizers of this weekend's Charlotte Marathon. They said Friday that they do not expect the wildfire smoke to impact Saturday's races, which include a marathon, half-marathon, 5K run/walk, marathon relay and a kids 1-mile fun run.

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10:45 a.m. (CST)

Tennessee officials have declared a state of emergency over the ongoing drought and wildfires.

The Tennessee Emergency Management Agency made the declaration Thursday evening to help protect lives and property with state and federal personnel and resources.

Agency Director Patrick Sheehan says 302 of Tennessee's 480 water systems are affected, and at least three counties have requested water deliveries for residents whose wells have run completely dry.

He says the wildfires already burned up to 6,200 acres in Bledsoe, Hamilton, Monroe and Sequatchie counties in the past month, and 53 fires are currently burning over nearly 9,680 acres in Tennessee.

Wildfires in Hamilton, Campbell and Sequatchie counties are threatening homes and property.

The agency says weather forecasts don't show any significant precipitation through the rest of 2016.

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9 a.m.

Officials say arson is being investigated as the possible cause of more than 20 wildfires in a national forest in North Carolina.

A division of the U.S. Forest Service says the fires have been burning on more than 25 square miles in the Nantahala National Forest in the western part of North Carolina.

No arrests have been reported in those fires, but arson arrests have been made in Tennessee and Kentucky.

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8:15 a.m.

Forest Service officials in North Carolina are investigating whether many of the wildfires burning in the western part of the state were caused by arson.

The Forest Service said in a news release Thursday that investigators are focused on fires that started Oct. 28 or later. The two largest are the Tellico fire, which has burned about 10 square miles and the Maple Springs fire, which has burned nearly 8 square miles.

The fires are among those in the southern Appalachian mountains, where a relentless drought has turned pine trees into matchsticks torches and forced evacuations in dozens of communities.

Arson arrests have been made in Tennessee and Kentucky.

Gov. Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency in 25 counties in western North Carolina on Thursday, freeing up additional state resources to fight the fire.

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3:40 a.m.

More than 5,000 firefighters and support staff from around the nation have come to the Southeast, because that's where the wildfires are right now.

Regional aviation director Shardul Raval of the U.S. Forest Service said Thursday that effort includes about 40 aircraft, and three large air tankers are flying out of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

High winds and temperatures and weeks without rain have combined to spark blaze after blaze in the unusually dry landscape. Numerous teams reported wind-driven fires racing up slopes and down ravines as they struggled to protect hundreds of threatened structures.

Thursday's national drought report shows 41.6 million people in parts of 15 Southern states living in drought conditions. The worst is in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee, but extreme drought also is spreading into the western Carolinas. Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina all have fierce fires.