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Firefighters charged in E.Ky. arson

Two current and one former Eastern Kentucky firefighters are accused of allegedly creating more work for firefighters by setting blazes in Pike and Knox counties.

Christopher C. Little, 30, of Pike County, James Adam Yeager, 20, of Knox County and Walter D. Brown, 23, also of Knox, were arrested and charged with arson after they allegedly started fires in their home counties this week, the Kentucky Division of Forestry said Friday.

The fires could have benefited Little and Yeager financially by creating more work for them. The two were employed part-time by the state and paid on an hourly basis.

Both have been dismissed.

Brown was an emergency firefighter last year before his dismissal, according to a Kentucky State Police press release.

"We don't know the reasons why people start arson fires," said Leah MacSwords, spokeswoman for the Division of Forestry. "I have a hard time believing people start fires so they have to do the backbreaking work to put out the fire. That can't be the only motivation."

MacSwords said the state Division of Forestry, which employs about 400 firefighters a year, hires and trains part-timers primarily for the fire seasons: Feb. 15 through April 30 and Oct. 1 through Dec. 15, MacSwords said.

Little, who had worked for the state since October, was arrested early Friday after the Division of Forestry received several calls from residents in Hellier in Pike County who allegedly saw him setting the blaze, MacSwords said. Forestry officials immediately notified the Kentucky State Police post in Pikeville.

"We were able to get there and take care of it quickly," she said.

This week's arrests aren't the first time firefighters have been charged with setting fires in Kentucky.

In August 2005, six volunteer firefighters in Lincoln County were charged with torching a historic, unused school building and two unoccupied houses. The county fire chief said the six may have been seeking a thrill or creating something to do.

Later that year, two seasonal firefighters with the state Division of Forestry were charged with setting wildfires in Bell County.

And in 2006 in Laurel County, police charged four men — one a volunteer firefighter and three former firefighters — with setting a series of blazes over two years that burned hay bales and structures.

There have been similar cases elsewhere. Officials in Pennsylvania are pushing for psychological screening for prospective firefighters as a way to identify those who might start fires.

A tip on arson

Little was being held Friday in the Pike County jail. His bond had not yet been set and details about his arraignment were not available.

Yeager, who has worked for the state since February, was arrested late Thursday after forestry officials received a tip that a person was starting fires in Coldstone. It was later found that it was an emergency firefighter.

Yeager is charged with willfully setting fire to land he does not own, a Class D felony that carries a possible one- to five-year prison sentence. It is not clear how many acres were burned.

The arraignment for Yeager is set for Monday in Knox District Court.

Brown was arrested after a tipster reported seeing someone suspicious after a fire started in the Valentine Branch area of Knox County.

In Kentucky this year, 1,394 wildland fires have been reported by the state Division of Forestry, more than 60 percent of them attributed to arson. But it's rare for firefighters to be accused of setting them, MacSwords said.

"We've never denied there's a possibility that the ... people who work for us have set fires," MacSwords said. "But, I don't want the actions of these ... individuals to reflect on the dedication of all the other hundreds of firefighters that are out there. They are risking their lives ...and breathing a lot of smoke to protect the people of Kentucky."