Authorities scrambling to stamp out dozens of wildfires that have scorched more than 80,000 acres across the Southeast have a stern warning for apparent arsonists.
"We're coming for you," David Purkey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security, said at a news conference in fire-ravaged Cocke County.
"If one of these first responders is injured or killed as a result of your actions, then the full weight of state government will come down upon you," Purkey pledged.
At least seven people have been arrested in hard-hit Tennessee on suspicion of starting forest fires in the past 20 days, officials said. At least two other incidents in Alabama are being investigated for arson, while one person described as an aspiring weatherman was charged with second-degree arson for a fire in eastern Kentucky.
While one of the region's biggest blazes — the Rough Ridge Fire in northern Georgia, where over 23,000 acres have been consumed — was started by lightning, officials worry that people acting carelessly or intentionally could set off a new inferno. The area has been suffering from severe drought and faces a lack of rain in the forecast.
In Tennessee, Gov. Bill Haslam banned any outdoor burning in more than half of the state through Dec. 15. Campfires and smoking are also prohibited in forested areas, where people are not allowed to park off-road in places where a car's tailpipe could come into contact with leaves.
Since the beginning of the month, the fires have grown unbridled in parts of Tennessee as well as Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia — forcing the evacuation of dozens of homes over the weekend. Some residents in western North Carolina near the Party Rock Fire, which burned more than 4,400 acres, were allowed to return Tuesday.
As many as 5,000 firefighters and support staff — some from as far away as Alaska and California — joined the grueling battle Wednesday to beat back the flames.
The smoke has been thick in some places where people are being urged to wear masks. The acrid air has even reached major metro areas such as Atlanta and Knoxville, Tennessee, officials said.
An air quality alert remained in place Wednesday in eastern Tennessee, and health officials said more than 200 people were hospitalized in Chattanooga for shortness of breath and breathing difficulties, reported NBC affiliate WBIR.
Tim Free, a lifelong resident of Rabun County, Georgia, described to The Associated Press how older neighbors are struggling with a smoke so relentless it blocks the sun.
"Everybody is pulling together," Free told the AP at the Liberty Baptist church, where donations to firefighters were being dropped off. "That's where you see your community pull together, and that's what we're fortunate to have here is people who care about people."