Multiple wildfires burn in Northwest Georgia; one found to be arson

Contributed Photo / Smoke from wildfires can be seen Monday morning in Walker County.
Contributed Photo / Smoke from wildfires can be seen Monday morning in Walker County.

While most of the wildfires burning in Northwest Georgia are contained, state officials are sending more resources to Walker County's 700-acre Highway 157 fire.

The Highway 157 fire was determined to be intentionally set, and Monday morning, a $10,000 reward for tips leading to the arrest and conviction of the arsonist was announced by the Georgia Forestry Commission.

"You never know what little piece of information is going to aid our investigation," Wendy Burnett, the commission's public relations director, said in a phone call. "So, if you see something — a car that's parked on the side of the road where it shouldn't be parked or has been sitting there a while — let us know. We'd rather get too much information and have a lot to sift through than not get the information."

Anyone with knowledge of the incident should contact the commission at 1-800-GA-TREES (478-7337). Burnett didn't have any additional information about the arson, she said.

(READ MORE: North Georgia wildfires linked to arson, $10,000 reward offered as authorities search for suspect)

The commission originally announced the Highway 157 fire was 1,400 acres, but that estimate was scaled down Monday morning due to better Geographic Information System data, Burnett said. As of Monday afternoon, the Highway 157 fire was at 50% containment.

The commission's website shows seven wildfires burning in Dade County. In Walker County, the website maps five. Dade County set a burn ban Friday, and Walker County set one Saturday, according to county officials.

Citing similarly dry conditions, the Chattanooga/Hamilton County Air Pollution Control Bureau also set a burn ban Monday until further notice. The agency issued a warning that violations would result in fines.

People in Northwest Georgia need to be careful with fire because of how dry it's been, Ted Rumley, chair of the Dade County board of commissioners and county executive, said in a phone call. Officials are monitoring the county's wildfires, he said.

"They're contained, but they're still not out," Rumley said of the wildfires. "The wind could change. It's just a scary time."

The Georgia Forestry Commission handles wildfires, but Rumley said the county's Fire Department is on hand if any structures are threatened. Two homes were threatened late last week by the Highway 157 fire, the commission said in a release, but were saved from any damage.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County, most of Southeast Tennessee in extreme drought)

A management team was in route to Northwest Georgia, as well as a team of bulldozers and pickup trucks retrofitted to fight fires, Burnett said. The management team was set to be in place Monday afternoon, she said.

  photo  Contributed Photo / The Highway 157 wildfire in Walker County is seen from above Saturday morning by the Georgia Forestry Commission.
 
 

"The Type 3 Incident Management Team, 3 basically, is a team we put in place to manage the incident," she said. "Not just the one fire, all of Northwest Georgia, because resources are running thin."

"They'll do everything from coordinate meals and hotel rooms for any out-of-towners who are coming in, to making sure everybody knows their duties who's going out to fight the fires that day or that shift," Burnett said.

Rumley said the conditions remind him of 2016's Fox Mountain fire in Dade County. He said that fire, near Rising Fawn, Georgia, required federal assistance.

The Georgia Forestry Commission has done prescribed burning in the county to reduce the risk of wildfires, but that usually happens during the summer months, when threats from wildfire aren't as high, Rumley said.

A release from the Walker County government said the Highway 157 fire escaped its original containment lines Thursday, but firebreaks have been established on its perimeter. The fire is burning in steep and rocky terrain, the release said, limiting tractor and bulldozer operations.

Citing extremely dry conditions that could cause large wildfires, Shannon Whitfield, chair of the county's board of commissioners, issued a 45-day burn ban for the county.

"Georgia Forestry has a systematic methodology they use to locate the origin of a fire," Joe Legge, Walker County spokesperson, said in an email. "This includes looking at potential sources of ignition, along with information gathered from witnesses, first responders and others in the area."

Georgia burners are legally responsible for their own fires and any damage they may cause, the release said.

Catoosa County has two wildfires being monitored by state officials. Three are burning in Murray County, and there are two in Chattooga County. Only the Murray Georgia 225 fire and Murray Kirby Young Road fire have been assigned personnel by the commission.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659.

  photo  Contributed Photo / Smoke from wildfires can be seen Monday morning in Walker County.