A string of suspicious fires kept area fire departments busy for hours on Wednesday, Aug. 15, and Thursday, Aug. 16, and the identity of the alleged arsonist was a second shock to the community.
Sharon Maguffee, a well known Salem resident, was arrested on Thursday, Aug. 16, after being interviewed by investigators at the Fulton County Sheriff's office. She has been charged with four counts of Arson and one count of Reckless Burning.
After being held at the Izard County Detention Center for four days, Maguffee was released on $10,000 bond on Monday, Aug. 20, on the condition that she seek a mental evaluation.
"Arrangements were made for her to be held and evaluated at a facility in Batesville," Sheriff Buck Foley said. "We felt that was the best way to proceed."
The rash of fires, which began on Aug. 15, led to long, challenging days for firefighters and police.
|"The Sturkie Fire Department was notified of a house fire in Sturkie about 11:30 a.m., and they paged us to help," Salem Fire Chief Nick Blanton said. "As we were on the way, we learned there was another fire at Moko, and a fire on Republican Road in Camp.|
On Sunrise Road, a short distance from the Sturkie bridge, a vacant house owned by Don and Lori Benedict was burning out of control by the time firefighters arrived. A hay fire was also discovered in the Sturkie area, a short distance from the Benedict fire.
While firefighters battled those fires, additional crews took on a stubborn fire in a vacant mobile home on Aspen Lane, near Moko. Aspen Lane is a narrow dirt road that was difficult for firefighters to get in and out off.
Meanwhile, the Camp Fire Department was busy with a grass fire on Republican Road, that was suspected to be connected to the two other fires.
"The first three fires were just about a mile and a half apart, it wouldn't have taken long to keep traveling over to Camp," Blanton said. "You could set all four fires in 10 to 15-minutes.
As the fires were being controlled, Fulton County Deputies were patrolling roads around the fires looking for suspicious vehicles, knowing that arsonists often return to fire sites to watch the response.
"The fires are all arson, no doubt on that. You don't have that many fires that close together, without it being intentional," Blanton said.
When every thing was under control, about 2 p.m., and firefighters could finally take a lunch break, another fire alarm was sounded -- this one to the south of Salem off Byron Road.
"This was another structure fire. Last year, there were two fires at a vacant trailer on Round Tree Road. This time, they got it," Blanton said.
As firefighters raced to the new fire scene, the fire spread around the mobile home, destroying two vehicles, a car and truck.
That was not the end of it. Other fires, grass and forest fires, were reported further up Byron Road. "They must have been setting fires as they drove away," Blanton said.
By the end of the day, Blanton said firefighters were "wore out" -- partly because departments were low on manpower, since the string of fires occurred during the day, when many volunteers are working and not available.
On Thursday, Aug. 16, another fire alarm sounded when some outbuildings were set on fire at a property owned by Judge Jim Short.
|"We definitely considered it (the fires) a criminal matter almost immediately," Sheriff Buck Foley said, and residents of the area helped the investigation by providing some valuable information. "We received information about a truck sighting in the area of one of the fires, and took statements from witnesses," Foley added.||On Thursday afternoon, Aug. 16, the sheriff indicated that a suspect was being questioned, and he expected an arrest to be made.|
According to criminal charges filed by the Fulton County Prosecutors Office, "Witness statements led the officers to believe that Sharon Maguffee may have had some involvement in the fires. Maguffee was contacted and interviewed in reference to the investigation. During a non-custodial interview, Maguffee admitted to having set the structure and hay fires on 8-15-2012, as well as the structure fire on 8-16-2012.
Maguffee is the widow of Gene Maguffee, who served as the Fulton County Clerk for a record 33 years. Maguffee died in 2005.
Fire Chief Blanton expressed relief that an arrest had been made, and no one was injured in the fires. Blanton thanked area firefighters for their response, and credited Forestry Department firefighters and their dozers for helping keep fires from spreading.
"Without forestry, it would have been a lot tougher," Blanton said. "Because they were there to help control the grass fires, we could leave those scenes more quickly."