RICHMOND, NOV. 6 -- Forest fires, many called arson by officials, were burning more than 3,000 acres in Southwest Virginia today. There was little prospect of a fire-dousing rain until next week.
Hundreds of firefighters, from the U.S. Forest Service, the Virginia Department of Forestry and scores of volunteer fire departments, were battling blazes in two widely separated regions.
"There's a possibility for a chance of rain Monday or Tuesday," said Mike Matthews of the National Weather Service, "but Saturday and Sunday it doesn't look like any."
There were no reports of damage to houses or of evacuations, but three persons were injured fighting the fires.
A total of 85 fires raged over 1,774 acres of private land in the coal country stretching north from the Kentucky-Tennessee border near Bristol, Va., to 1,500 acres burning out of control in the Jefferson National Forest in Craig County, west of Roanoke near the West Virginia line, officials said.
Lewis F. Southard of the Virginia Department of Forestry said that most of the fires in the far southwestern corner of the state "are arson-related."
The outbreak started just before Halloween, Southard said. Arson "has always been a problem in the South," he said, "and it has been on the increase the last several years."
Some people "traditionally burn off the woods each year," Southard said. "There's no logical reason why someone would set the woods on fire. Most of the time it's someone setting other people's property on fire, not necessarily knowing whose property it is. But some of it is just plain spitefulness and meanness."
Two persons were arrested recently and charged with setting 18 fires, he said. "When we find others, we're going to prosecute."
The problem has become so acute that the forestry department has established a new position -- chief fire investigator. Milton Morris, who has taken that position, was dispatched to the Abingdon regional office today to determine the sources of fires in that area, Southard said.
Southard estimated that since Jan. 1 most of the 1,000 fires reported in the state were set. A total of 4,285 acres has been burned.
Falling leaves are feeding the fires and carrying them across fire lines, rekindling blazes that had been extinguished, Southard said. Workers used leaf blowers to remove fallen leaves from the path of the advancing flames.
A special problem in the Jefferson Natonal Forest is that some of the fire is located in the Barbour's Creek wilderness study area, where, except with special permission, heavy equipment cannot be taken in on the ground.
Lionel Melancon, fire information officer for the Forest Service, said air tankers were used to drop retardants on the area.
Elsewhere in the national forest, about 150 persons were on the fire line, using bulldozers and shovels to contain the flames.
Melancon said the cause of the fire was unknown, except that "it did not result from a camp fire or brush burning."
Some of the Forest Service personnel on the scene were dispatched to California to help fight forest fires this fall, and a couple from the Jefferson Forest headquarters at Roanoke are still fighting the fires in the West, Melancon said. Another 57 rangers from Virginia have been sent to Kentucky, while one crew from Arizona is helping out in Virginia.
More than 8,000 fires have burned about 121,000 acres in a 13-state southern region from Texas to Virginia since Oct. 27.