LUMBERTON — Wildfires that burned more than 200 acres of forest land near St. Pauls on Saturday are being called suspicious by a local fire chief and a state forest ranger.
“They didn’t start by themselves. That’s all I can say,” said Alex Inman, fire chief of the Big Marsh Volunteer Fire Department.
Inman’s firefighters were first on the scene when the calls about fires began coming in about 10 a.m. Saturday. Some of Big Marsh’s firefighters didn’t leave the last fire scene until about 2:30 a.m. Sunday, Inman said. In all about 18 calls came in Saturday about multiple fires.
“I would say 15 fires Saturday, maybe,” Inman said.
Firefighters would put out one fire and move to the next, he said. Eventually the situation became bigger than the Big Marsh firefighters could handle alone and help was called in, including from the sky.
At one point firefighters from Robeson and neighboring counties were helping battle blazes in a 10-mile stretch of forest land, Inman said.
“Probably 10 different departments,” Inman said. “We had departments from Bladen County and Cumberland County involved.”
No one was injured, but two structures were burned, Inman said. One structure was an abandoned mobile home off Oakland Road. The other was a barn off Edge Grove Road, which was a case of a flames jumping a fire line and moving to within 30 feet of a home.
“We were able to save the home,” Inman said.
All of the fires had been extincted as of Monday, but firefighters will remain on alert for any hot spits reigniting. There is a chance of some thunderstorm’s in today’s forecast, which would also ease some worries.
The investigation of the fires was turned over to the North Carolina Forest Service, which by law is responsible for investigating woodland fires.
“All the set fires, they were suspicious,” said Jeff Stone, a ranger with the Forest Service’s Robeson County office.
He said they are suspicious because there were several fires in a small area, but arson has not been confirmed.
“The investigation continues,” Stone said Monday. “They’re out there as we speak.”
All six of the Forest Service rangers in Robeson County were dispatched to help battle the fires, Stone said, as were two from Hoke County. Two Forest Service airplanes and a helicopter were used to drop water on the fires. A scout plane was used to help guide firefighting efforts that included the use of bulldozers to cut fire lines and Forest Service tanker engines.
“It was a big-scale operation. Probably the biggest operation I’ve ever had,” Inman said.
Robeson County has had more than 90 wildfires since the beginning of 2017, burning more than 1,300 acres, with approximately 18 of those occurring on Saturday alone, according to the state Forest Service. The cause of more than 70 percent of these wildfires is undetermined, and some of the more recent ones are under investigation and could possibly be determined as arson. Another 20 percent of this year’s fires have been caused by careless burning of debris.
“People need to understand that whether its arson, careless debris burning, or some other cause, we need to do better at protecting not only our forest lands but the lives of our first responders and the public, as well as our homes and businesses,” Stone said.
Anyone with information about Saturday’s fires is asked to call the Forest Service at 910-618-5540.
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974.