Arsonists still at large in eastern Kentucky
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By ROGER ALFORD
Associated Press Writer
PIKEVILLE, Ky. (AP) - Investigators continue to search for
arsonists who torched two churches and set hundreds of forest fires
in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.
Rain that settled across the region on Wednesday ended the
outbreak of forest fires, but church leaders remained on alert,
fearing that arsonists who burned two churches in Johnson County
may strike again.
Authorities are taking a fresh look at a third church fire,
which occurred in February, to see if it might be linked, Kentucky
State Police Arson Investigator Don Parker said.
"Everyone's on edge," said James Kelly Caudill, pastor of
Tom's Creek Freewill Baptist Church in rural Johnson County. "You
don't know where these guys are going to strike again, or when."
Some churches are installing surveillance cameras in the wake of
the arson fires. Others are asking parishioners to be on the
lookout for anything suspicious, said Rick Ratliff, chaplain at the
Paintsville Fire Department and pastor of Tomahawk Freewill Baptist
Church in Martin County.
"We're also asking people who live in the area to pay attention
to what's going on," Ratliff said.
The most recent fires burned Sugar Grove United Baptist Church
in Sitka and New Bethel Freewill Baptist Church in Riceville.
Parker said the other fire destroyed the Tom's Creek United Baptist
Church in Johnson County on Feb. 28.
Agents from the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms
and Explosives are assisting with the investigation.
Parker said investigators have no suspects. "We do have a
couple of leads we're trying to follow up on," he said.
In an unrelated case, authorities in Perry County arrested Marty
Williams, 50, of Hazard, for allegedly setting a fire Sunday in
downtown Hazard that destroyed a building that housed apartments,
an office supply store and a bar.
Gwen Holt, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Forestry,
said more than half of the nearly 893 wildfires that have charred
more than 18,226 acres of land in the state over the past three
months are suspected of being intentionally set.
Rain showers have dampened the forests enough so that arsonists
have no effect. The good news, Holt said, is that the forecast
calls for more rain next week.
Caudill said people in eastern Kentucky are sad that churches
now need the same type of surveillance cameras used in business
places.
"We never thought this day would ever come, but it's here,"
Caudill said. "It's the day we're living in, and we've got to
accept it to protect our churches."

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)