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News 13 Investigates: The cost of WNC arson fires

Flames came close to the Nantahala Outdoor Center, forcing it to close for about a week. (Photo credit: Rob Lindsey)

A string of 22 arson fires in the fall of 2016 cost nearly $8 million.

A News 13 investigation requested the numbers from the National Forest Service, and looked into the status of the cases.

The wildfires were intentionally set in the Nantahala National Forest from October until December of last year.

"THE CLOSER IT GOT, THE SCARIER IT GOT"

In the heart of the Nantahala National Forest, sit gorgeous, peaceful views that were nearly wiped away.

"It is coming back, but there are still reminders, for sure," Linda Dills said of vegetation in the woods around her property.

Dills' husband has lived on the property on Wesser Creek Road for decades. But last fall, she ended up packing her most treasured items and leaving as the flames got closer.

"It came right here to the corner of the house," Dills recalled.

Dills said even though it was more than six months ago, she still feels uneasy about the fire that wrapped around her property.

"We knew that it was on its way. I was anxious, I started... it was hard not knowing what was going to happen. The unknown is the most terrifying thing, I think," Dills said.

Blackened trees still show exactly where the fire reached on the ridge above Dills' property. She said even though some of the vegetation has grown back, and the ash has cleared, most of the wildlife is gone along with plenty of trees.

"It's awful. I hate it to see the damage that has occurred," Dills said.

BUSINESSES BOUNCING BACK

Five minutes away, the Nantahala Outdoor Center is gearing up for a big summer, after a big scare last fall.

"This area was very smoke filled and definitely kept people away for a while, but now I think people are trickling their way back," William Irving said. "So, it's been positive to see them come out."

Irving is the President of the Nantahala Outdoor Center, which was forced to close for about a week last fall as the flames got closer.

Now, the green has already replaced the black.

Irving said the fires actually provided a revitalization of the forest, adding that businesses in the Nantahala Gorge want tourists and residents to know the fires are long gone.

"It has given a rebirth to the forest and we are seeing some new flora and fauna," Irving explained.

Irving said the worst part is knowing someone intentionally scorched the forest that so many value.

"We take pride in taking care of the land and knowing someone would purposefully go out and set this fire, it was painful because we all felt it endangered peoples homes, it endangered businesses for no real reason behind it," Irving said.

UNSOLVED CASES

All 22 of the arsons were assigned to Special Agent Brian Southard with the National Forest Service. He said the fires were sparked in various sections of the Nantahala, Cheoah, and Tusquitee districts of the National Forest.

Some were quickly contained while others, like the Tellico Fire, burned more than 10,000 acres.

"It was a very strange fire season, and I don't know what to attribute it to," Southard said.

Southard walked News 13 crews through the charred remains of one of the largest blazes -- the Camp Branch Fire. He showed exactly what he looks for as he investigates each arson.

"You can tell the fire started from this direction because all your char patterns on are this side," Southard explained.

He said finding where the fire started is usually easy, but finding what sparked it and who's behind it is much more difficult.

"We don't have the time to spend to keep on and on when there isn't anything there to really look at," Southard said.

Which is why all but two of the cases are essentially closed.

"We have exhausted a lot of our investigative leads on all those at this time."

Keith Mann admitted to starting the Jones Creek and Boardtree fires, but the other cases have grown cold.

Southard believes different people started the fires, people who most likely live in the area.

WHO PAYS?

The fires also exhausted plenty of resources. News 13 requested the cost for each arson fire in Western North Carolina last fall.

The National Forest Service said the total is about $8 million.

"For us here, we do not spend $8 million a year fighting fires, so it's hard to believe it's in your own backyard," Brian Browning, with the National Forest Service, said.

Browning said that covers pay, and room and board for the approximately 600 people who came to fight the fires from all over the country.

"To know you're spending that kind of money it can be a hard pill to swallow."

He said it's a huge cost that ultimately falls back on taxpayers.

"Well, it's like everything else for the government, it's taxpayers. We are allocated so much money for fire suppression," Browning said.

The Forest Service said the money comes out of a national fund that looks at the average annual cost for fire suppression over 10 years. They said it's all done on the federal level, so North Carolinians don't pay more for more fires in North Carolina.

But Browning said it still ends up costing our residents since Forest Service employees were busy with the fires, and other jobs got delayed, like timber sales and land line maintenance.

For Dills, the cost hurts, but what's even worse than losing beautiful land is losing justice.

"I would like to think they will be adjudicated, found guilty, but I doubt that will happen, and that's even more upsetting," Dills said.

The fiscal year for the fire service actually begins on October 1, so the string of arson fires will be part of this year's budget.


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