CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Fred and Jennifer Jones treasure a special place nestled in the North Carolina Mountains. It's called High Haven at Wayah Bald, a high-altitude treeless open area in the Nantahala National Forest, near Franklin.
At an elevation of more than 5,000 feet, there is a clearing of land where a family cabin had survived since the early 1900s. It was the scene of numerous gatherings with relatives and friends that holds so many memories.
The couple describes the space as one that makes you feel a connection to God.
On Thanksgiving in 2016, that hallowed ground became the site of a crime scene when the cabin was destroyed by a raging wildfire sparked by an arsonist.
The fire that leveled High Haven was one of 27 wildfires over the winter that resulted from arson.
Special Agent Brian Southard, with the U.S. Forest Service, told Channel 9 that it has been the worst stretch of arsons he has ever seen in his 24 years of service. This past winter marked the first time in his memory that the fire activity grew so intense and widespread that a management team from the West Coast had to be called in to assist.
Some estimate that the effort to contain the fires has cost taxpayers more than $50 million.
Southard is in charge of tracking down the individuals responsible, and agreed to give Channel 9 exclusive access inside the investigation.
On Feb. 20, Southard guided Channel 9 anchor Erica Bryant and her photographer to multiple sites in the woods, where his team identified fires that had been intentionally set.
"Arsonists typically start fires along the side of a road, or along a walking trail, so that they can start the fire and make a quick getaway," said Southard.
He shared photographs of evidence, which included entire boxes of blackened household matches which had been used to set fires.
Southard said it is still unclear whether the high number of arsons over the winter was the result of "copycat" crimes. Sometimes, he said, individuals set fires if they feel wronged in some way by the federal government.
According to experts, other arsonists set fires because they like the excitement of it, and like to watch as fire crews respond.
Keith Eugene Mann, of Franklin, might fall into that category.
Mann is currently under arrest in connection to two fires in the Nantahala Forest, at least one near occupied homes.
Channel 9 obtained a copy of a 911 call where Mann called in to report a fire along Forest Service Road 763, which is commonly referred to as Jones Creek Road.
Southard told Channel 9 that the call sounded suspicious so he went to question Mann, who eventually confessed to setting the fire.
A source also reported to officials that they saw a vehicle matching the description of Mann's vehicle in the area of the Jones Creek fire.
Southard said that Mann stated he "was bored, had too much time on his hands and recently had family problems," which led him to start the flames.
Mann reportedly stated that his wife recently left him and he didn't have much to live for.
Channel 9 has obtained documents from the U.S. Attorney’s Office Western District regarding the case. Recently, Mann entered into a plea agreement in the case of two fires set at Forest Service Road 388, or Board Tree Road, and Forest Service Road 763, also known as Jones Creek Road.
The charge of destroying real property of the United States by means of fire carries a mandatory penalty of five years and a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Mann is scheduled to appear in court in early March.
Meanwhile, Southard and his team continue to work to track down others who may be responsible for the 27 arson wildfires in what was an historic winter season.
Tips can be called in to Southard at the Nantahala District Ranger Station at 828-524-6441.
The Jones’ still don't know who set the fire that eventually destroyed their family cabin, and hundreds of acres surrounding it, at High Haven. They have mixed emotions about their loss, but also some anger that someone would set a fire that put first responders at risk.
"Firefighters from all over the country left their families and they put themselves at personal risk," said Fred Jones. "They are out in the middle of the wilderness and the wind can do crazy things in a fire, so it was an unnecessary act that caused damage and put people at risk, and that made me mad."
The couple is grateful that no one was killed, and that firefighters are safe. The community has turned out in large numbers to try to help the family rebuild their beloved cabin.
"The amount of help that people are offering is incredible," said Jennifer Jones. "They are just coming out of the woodwork and I calculate that 1,000 different people have been up here just from the things that we've done."
The goal is that a new cabin structure replacing the one that had been there since the early 1900s will be back in place by Thanksgiving of 2017, ready to be the sacred place for many special family events for years to come.
"There is a lot that's lost now, but we see ourselves as kind of stewards to take this forward to the next generation for the next 70 years," Jennifer said.
They have these words for the person who started the fire: "Come help us rebuild, come help. No one is all bad, and who knows their motivation? I can't judge."
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