Four men who admitted accidentally setting a wildfire that burned for more than a month on the West Brow of Lookout Mountain have been fined $210 each, according to a representative for the National Park Service.
The four men, whose names have not been released, have already paid the fines, according to Todd Roeder, chief ranger for the Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park. They were charged with camping outside of a designated area and lighting a fire outside a designated area, he said.
Three of the men, who are in their 20s, are from Tennessee and one is from Indiana, Roeder said.
The park service has not decided whether to sue the men for damages to recover the cost of fighting the fire, he said.
"While they didn't do anything malicious, they were not being smart," Roeder said. "They built a fire in a drought area."
Roeder conceded that the park service probably would not have been able to determine how the fire started "without them coming forward."
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No homes were damaged in the fire, but some 75 firefighters spent several weeks trying to extinguish the flames, which were in crevices and deep piles of debris at the foot of the steep rock bluffs on the west side of the mountain. About 20 acres were damaged by the fire.
Roeder said the men contacted the Georgia Forestry Commission after seeing news reports about the fire and admitted they might have been responsible.
They said they were camping on the bluff on Sunday, July 10.
"They said they started to cook bratwurst over a campfire they had built at the edge of the cliff," Roeder said. "One of the branches burning broke off and went over the bluff. They said they noticed it right after it caught fire in the leaves below."
The men said they hacked a path down the side of the bluff and thought they had successfully extinguished the fire, Roeder said, waiting 30 minutes to be certain it was out.
Nearby residents did not notice smoke from the fire until the next day. Firefighters were unable to get to the flames themselves, in the crevices of the bluff, although they used a helicopter for several days to dump water and try to contain the fire. Firefighters eventually hauled in several thousand feet of hose and attached it to a pumper truck before setting several backfires to burn off the underbrush and create a dead zone the fire couldn't cross.
Although the fire has been contained for a couple of weeks, Roeder said the park service has not yet declared it out, though there are no signs of smoke or flames. Rangers hike through the area above the bluff on a daily basis just to be certain, he said. The park service also installed a rain gauge in the burned area at the top of the bluff to determine how much rainfall had occurred in the area.
"A couple of days of steady rain is what we're looking for," Roeder said. "But Mother Nature's not cooperating with us on that one."
Roeder said park officials have been revising their plans for preventing wildfires on the mountain. A tornado struck the area in 2010 and knocked down a lot of large trees that had blocked sunlight to the ground below and kept the highly flammable underbrush from growing. The park service is considering setting small fires to burn off part of that underbrush to make it harder for fires to spread, Roeder said.