Wildfire culprit must be found

The wildfire that burned through nearly 1,000 acres of forestland on Wills Mountain in Bedford County has been extinguished. The land is expected to recover over the next several years.

But a big concern remains. It’s the fact that the person who set the blaze remains free.

As long as that’s the case, there can be no certainty that the arsonist will not strike again – perhaps in a bolder way, causing a much bigger conflagration than what challenged firefighters for about a week beginning on April 19.

It is important that anyone with suspicions about the identity of the arsonist get in touch with authorities. The information can be provided anonymously or otherwise.

What’s important is that investigators get a solid lead on which to advance their probe, hopefully leading to an arrest.

No structures were threatened by the Wills Mountain flames; the fire was in an area without nearby homes or other buildings.

There were no serious injuries. However, the potential for major, life-threatening injuries was present throughout the firefighting operation – both on the ground and during the firefighting from the air.

The person who started the fire is facing arson charges, if caught, but had something gone terribly wrong, authorities might now be in search of a murderer.

The fear that the Wills blaze was the work of an arsonist existed early on because of the fire’s rugged, isolated point of origin and the absence of evidence that a lightning strike might have been the cause. But first authorities had to rule out other possible accidental origins.

Such fires have been known to be triggered by campfires not fully extinguished, or by dry grass or weeds having come in contact with hot exhausts of all-terrain vehicles.

Not in the Wills Mountain fire, though. Investigators have ruled out a careless or accidental cause and have confirmed that they’re looking for someone who intentionally set the forestland ablaze.

It can be assumed that authorities are not releasing all they know about the fire’s origin; that’s standard operating procedure.

If they identify a suspect, they’ll need a way to prove that the information that person might divulge is consistent with the evidence they found at the scene.

Authorities’ announcement that the fire will cost taxpayers a hefty sum – possibly several hundred thousand dollars – comes as no surprise. If the arsonist is apprehended, he must be made responsible for reimbursement of those costs – after he’s served an appropriate prison sentence.

Even as authorities continue their probe, it’s right that those who fought the flames be recognized for the knowledge, skills and perseverance they displayed in keeping the fire from becoming a much bigger blaze. Praise also is due to residents who provided water and food for the firefighters.

Much that could have gone wrong didn’t because of the professionalism that the firefighters displayed.

But the big troubling point remains: There’s still an arsonist on the loose.

Authorities must not rest until he or she is in custody and is no longer a threat to strike again.