CENTERVILLE - A weeklong wildfire that tore through nearly 1,000 forest acres in Bedford County has been ruled an arson, state authorities said Monday.
A Bureau of Forestry investigator is looking for leads in what is now a criminal investigation, forest fire specialist Ray Miller said, after authorities ruled out lightning strikes, hot-running vehicles and unattended campfires as possible causes.
"We have feelers out. Hopefully someone may have seen something," Miller said, noting that the blaze's rugged, isolated point of origin indicates an intentional fire.
Weekend rain put out the last of the burning embers, leaving officials confident that the fire, which began April 19, is over, Miller said. No inhabited buildings were hit.
The emergency response - involving more than 100 firefighters, heavy equipment and even aircraft - will likely cost taxpayers a hefty sum, while the lingering effects on the Wills Mountain forest could last years.
While Bureau of Forestry members were still calculating costs last week, District Forester Jim Smith said, the weeklong response to the blaze will certainly cost six figures and possibly several hundred thousand dollars. An outpouring of food and water donations from Bedford County residents helped keep firefighters' supplies stocked.
Both the fire and the responders' work affected the Wills Mountain forest, which consists largely of state game land but includes some private property. "Dozer lines," trenches dug into the earth and filled with water to stop a fire's expansion, must be filled in and seeded with new greenery, Smith said.
The plant life hit by the fire is far from snuffed out, he explained: Many trees remain safe, if damaged, and burned-away underbrush will one day return.
In professional terms, the forest is a "dry oak heath" consisting largely of chestnut oak, maple and other oak species, Smith said. Those trees aren't conducive to the massive, high-climbing fires that tear dramatically through forests in the West.
The Pennsylvania Game Commission, which owns most of the affected land, works to prevent overwhelming fire damage by carrying out occasional controlled burns, Smith explained. While low-lying plant life has been burned away in some areas, scenes of flatted, charred forests are unlikely on Wills Mountain.
The commission's most likely procedure is to "let nature take its course," he said, allowing the ecosystem to adjust naturally to new conditions. Wildlife tends to flee forest fires, but some animals had already returned late last week, Smith said.
In fact, both hunters and their prey could experience a boon in the game lands' next season: The loss of underbrush and some trees means new, younger trees will have room to take root, luring in deer that thrive on fresh, low-standing greenery, Smith said. There's no reason the forest would be closed to hunters even for the approaching turkey season, he said.
With proper management - including the controlled burns commission authorities have carried out in past years - a forest can quickly bounce back from even a massive fire, Smith noted.
"Within five years, you'd be hard-pressed ... to see there was a fire there," he said.
In the mean time, state investigators are seeking tips on possible suspects and comment from anyone who was near the Wills mountain game land on April 19. The Bureau of Forestry has asked anyone with information to call Special Investigator Terry Smith at 717-362-1472.
While arson is commonly associated with buildings, some compulsive firestarters begin by setting forest fires, Miller said.
"It's in the blood," he said