NASHVILLE — Tennessee wildfires have already cost the state an estimated $5.5 million to fight, not to mention property damage, and that has Gov. Bill Haslam vowing to go after arsonists believed responsible for setting at least half of the blazes across drought-parched portions of the state.facebook
"We obviously are very concerned about fires in Tennessee, particularly the fact that it looks like the majority of them were set by arsonists," Haslam told reporters. "I can assure you we're going to pursue those folks with everything they can because the impact on our communities is huge."
Haslam's comments came after he questioned state Agriculture Commissioner Jai Templeton and Division of Forestry officials, up for their annual budget review, about the fires in Hamilton County and other parts of East Tennessee where fires in forested and other areas have been worst.
Tennessee firefighters, aided by teams from Florida, Texas and other states that belong in a 10-state compact, have done a "terrific job," the governor said.
"Obviously there are costs associated," Haslam said. "Some of that will hit our own budget. It could be as much as $5 million. We'll have to see how all that plays out."
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., toured wildfire scenes in Hamilton County Monday.
Templeton and forestry officials told the governor that preliminary estimates indicate Tennessee stands to recoup at least $900,000 in federal emergency funds for money it spent on a three-fire "complex" near Soddy-Daisy in Hamilton County, Smith County in nearby Sequatchie County and East Miller Cover in Blount County. Because they have been federally designated, the federal government would pay 75 percent of costs.
Non-federally designated areas, however, are on Tennessee taxpayers' dime with the state bringing in firefighting teams from other states. A Florida team made a huge difference in fighting the North Hamilton County fires, Templeton and other officials told the governor.
Haslam also noted the "first concern is for people's welfare and protecting their houses. The second is the long-term economic damage to the state. Our farmers are going through a tough period already, and the drought is obviously making all of that worse."
As for what more punishments are in store for suspected arsonists, Haslam said, "I've actually asked that question. We're trying to see what we can do there that we can do within the powers given us. But I would be in favor of doing it. I'll obviously have to see what we can do."
He said he may push tougher laws for future arsonists.
In the meantime, Templeton and other department officials warned he sees both immediate and long-term negative impacts to Tennessee farmers as a result of the drought. Beef and dairy farmers have been especially hard hit as have their livestock, forcing many to sell off their animals sooner than they would have liked.
Templeton said that because the average Tennessee farmer is in his or her late 50s, the economic impacts may prompt them to just go ahead and call it quits. That matters both for their families as well as state exports of meat and dairy products, he said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at 615-255-0550 or email@example.com.
This story was updated Nov. 21 at 10:30 p.m.