Governor Announces State Initiative To Stop Forest Fires

Pikeville (AP) Gov. Ernie Fletcher announced a new effort Saturday to investigate and prevent wilderness arson fires, saying the initiative was inspired by the narrow escape of three firefighters from a blaze set deliberately last month in Pike County.

The state initiative will include a joint effort among the Division of Forestry, Kentucky State Police, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Kentucky National Guard.

Fletcher mentioned the close call for the three Division of Forestry firefighters who were in the path of an arson fire while they were working two weeks ago.

Firefighters said they were heartened by the initiative to combat the threat of arson. "I think it's awesome," said Allen Adkins, one of the three firefighters endangered by the arson fire. "I really hope it helps because eventually it's really going to get someone hurt."

Officials said arson is the leading cause of wildfires in Kentucky. Of the nearly 300 fires in the Division of Forestry's eastern district this year, arson is listed as the cause of 68 percent. Also recently, a fire vehicle was set on fire and equipment was stolen from fire trucks, officials said.

Fletcher said that when he heard about the incidents, "I said we've got to do something about this, it's unacceptable."

"It's shocking to me that over half of fires are caused by arson," he said.

Fletcher said state police will oversee the effort and work with the other departments to have law enforcement officers target arson hot spots, most of which are in eastern Kentucky.

State police will post several new troopers in eastern Kentucky.

Officers will investigate reports of possible arson, keep a lookout for suspicious activity and arrest offenders. The arson fire that endangered the three firefighters occurred two weeks ago while the trio set what is called a "back fire" to prevent a forest fire from spreading.

While the men were working, a supervisor saw a man on a four-wheeler setting a fire below the three firefighters. The blaze rushed up the hill, trapping the men between it and the original blaze. Adkins sent his two colleagues, Jason Hartsock and Wendell Mullins, to a safer area, but he stayed behind to fight the original fire.

"I felt that we could stop the fire from jumping the road," Adkins said. "It would've jumped and it could've been more dangerous."

While fighting the original fire, Adkins said, the arson-set blaze moved quickly toward him but stopped by a road that acted as a fire break.

"When it topped out, it was maybe 10 feet from where I was," Adkins said. "I was in danger, real danger. It scared me to death."

The arsonist escaped on his four-wheeler, officials said. Police are investigating.