Donald Caudill and Barnell Caudill Jr., have been charged with wildland arson, wanton endangerment, interference with forestry officers or employees and terroristic threatening, according to a state press release issued on Thursday.
The charges stem from wildland fires believed to have been intentionally set on April 9, in the Elliott Branch area of Jenson, east of Pineville, in Bell County.
The fires burned an estimated 85 acres.
The two men, who are brothers, allegedly interfered with forest rangers' efforts to extinguish the fire. They also allegedly discharged a weapon and made verbal threats.
Donald Caudill was arrested in Wednesday by Kentucky State Police.
Barnell Caudill Jr. is still being sought.
Both were temporary hourly laborers employed by the Kentucky Division of Forestry (KDF) as emergency firefighters at the time of the incident.
The charges add credence to a long-standing theory that a portion of the forest fires that plague the state's Appalachian region are set by some of the people hired to put them out.
‘‘We have never denied that that could be a possibility,'' said Leah MacSwords, director of the Kentucky Division of Forestry. ‘‘We have seen incidents of that around the country.''
MacSwords immediately barred the Caudills from further employment firefighters for the state agency.
The Division of Forestry maintains a roster of 300 to 500 seasonal firefighters who earn minimum wage by helping extinguish forest fires, an estimated 55 percent of which are believed to be intentionally set. Typically, those firefighters do not have other full-time jobs.
Bell County prosecutor Neil Ward said people have suspected for years that some of the seasonal firefighters may be responsible for setting some of the blazes so that they could be paid for putting them out.
Some people, Ward said, have suggested putting the seasonal firefighters on retainers so that they could be paid even when they're not fighting fires. He said that would take away the financial incentive to set fires.
MacSwords said the allegations against two reserve firefighters should not reflect negatively upon the rest.
‘‘People who would work for minimum wage to fight wild land fires are in my estimation brave individuals, and they're doing a great service to the commonwealth,'' she said. ‘‘It is a very tough job.''
MacSwords said the Caudills are the first seasonal woodland firefighters arrested in Kentucky for setting a fire.
Firefighters struggle to understand why forest arson is such a problem in Kentucky. More than half of the 980 fires that blackened more than 52,000 acres of forests this year were intentionally set, MacSwords said.
‘‘It really doesn't make any difference what the reason is,'' she said. ‘‘Setting the woods on fire is a crime. We just can't tolerate it.''
Kentucky firefighters have been called on 28 wildfires in the past two weeks alone.
‘‘Not only does it damage the wood and make it less valuable for the timber industry, but we have so many Kentuckians who have moved into wooded areas,'' MacSwords said. ‘‘It puts those residents at risk.''
Ward said catching woodland arsonists and building cases against them is difficult because there usually are no witnesses.
The Environmental and Public Protection Cabinet's Office of Inspector General (OIG) conducted an investigation, OIG presented the case to Bell County Attorney Neil Ward, who filed the charges against the two men on Tuesday.
Susan Basil, commissioner of the Department for Natural Resources, said, “Arsonists will not be tolerated and will be prosecuted to the; fullest extent of the law “ KDF is a division of the department.
With wildland arson on the increase, Governor Ernie Fletcher announced on Dec. 10 a new enforcement initiative involving multiple agencies, including KDF, Kentucky State Police, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources and the Kentucky National Guard.
Donald Caudill and Barnell Caudill Jr., both were charged with single counts of wanton endangerment, misdemeanor terroristic threatening, misdemeanor interference with a forestry officer or employee and setting fire on land owned by another - the legal term for wildland arson. The wanton-endangerment and arson charges are Class D felonies, punishable by 1 to 5 years in prison. The arson charge also carries a fine of up to $10,000,
The misdemeanors are punishable by up to a year in jail.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.