Investigators: Fire at historic campground set; no arrests made

CATAWBA COUNTY, N.C. — Investigators say they have determined a massive fire that destroyed a historic Catawba County campground last September was intentionally set, but no one has been arrested.

Investigators from local, state and federal agencies have formed a joint task force to continue investigating the fire at the Balls Creek Campground on Sept. 29, 2019.

Officials told Channel 9′s Dave Faherty that investigators filled paint cans with dirt samples from the fire and it later tested positive for some type of accelerant.

“We had a team of canines that came out and those canines alerted on the areas,” said Sheriff Don Brown. “We’ve been working tirelessly from day one and we will continue to work tirelessly on it but there are things we just don’t want to put out to the public yet.”

Initially, the Catawba County Fire Marshal’s Office received information that the fire at the Balls Creek Campground may have been set in retaliation for an incident at the Bandys High School versus Maiden High School football game, according to a search warrant.

“I just can’t imagine anyone wanting to do something like this over an incident at a football game. It’s just unreal that people are that hostile,” camper Sherry Robinson said.

Investigators said they have not been able to corroborate or refute that lead.

Samples from the area were sent to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms crime lab in Atlanta for further testing.

Firefighters had to call in at least 14 departments from Lincoln, Iredell and Alexander counties for help and more than 100 firefighters after a fire broke out around 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 29, 2019 at the campground along Buffalo Shoals Road.

Officials said the fire destroyed about 40 of the 295 cabins before firefighters were able to get it under control. Nine other cabins sustained some damage.

Viewer video and photos from the scene show massive flames lighting up the night sky with an orange glow and the flames could be seen for miles.

The flames were so intense, they reached 30 to 40 feet into the tree tops.

Eyewitness News reporter Gina Esposito was there as crews used bulldozers and water from nearby ponds to stop the flames from spreading.

Catawaba County emergency manager Karyn Yaussy said firefighters were extremely careful when putting out the flames.

"We have electrical poles that are on fire," Yaussy said. "We have some propane tanks, and things like that are going off inside this tent area that are exploding and on fire, so it’s a really serious situation."

Families have gathered at the campground for religious activities for about 166 years.

Channel 9 learned most families only gather at the site for two weeks in August, so no one was hurt when the fire broke out.

Neighbors said they are devastated to see such a historic place go up in flames.

"It's just, it's devastating to me, being someone that went and hung out there from probably 7 to 18 years old, so, my heart breaks," said neighbor Tandy Walker.

In the 1880s, families used wagons to set up tents around the campground, but over time families have built hundreds of cabins. Although the cabins are wooden, many people still refer to them as tents because of the history.

Eddie Burris showed Channel 9 the damage to his tent last September. He and his family have been coming to the campground for more than 50 years and still can’t believe someone would do this.

“It was like just so much of your past, you couldn’t hardly believe it. It was just a really, really sad feeling,” Burris said. “It was heartwrenching. You’d like to see justice prevail somehow. Somebody should be held accountable.”

Denise Wright said she and her family have owned a cabin for generations.

"I've been coming since I was 3 months old," Wright said. "This year that we just celebrated was 166 years. So my grandparents came, my great-great grandparents came, my mom and daddy."

Families said they hope items that have been passed down for years survived the flames.

"This will affect the whole community," camp goer Kathy Setzer said. "It really will. It's not just everybody who owns it, but everybody who had came to the campground will be touched by this."

Nancy Drum and loved ones are one of the families who lost a cabin. The cabins are valued at more than $30,000, but it is the memories they cherish the most.

"It's a family community out here," Drum said. "Everybody is family out here. Just sickening. It makes you sick to your stomach."

Work has begun to rebuild some of the tents and some families are spending as much as $25,000 to $30,000 to do the work.

Channel 9 could see investigators with the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, the Catawba County Sheriff's Office and the fire marshal’s office working together to assess the damage.

Authorities said the investigation into finding the cause of the fire is being handled by a joint task force of local, state and federal agencies.

This includes local law enforcement and first responders as well as the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the United States Department of Justice -- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Sheriff Brown said several students from both Bandys and Maiden High schools have been questioned, and officials determined they were not involved.

The Catawba County Schools Superintendent Matthew Stover released the following statement:

“I have received questions and read media statements which allege there was an incident or altercation between students at the Maiden - Bandys High School football game this past Friday night. To my knowledge, no such incident or altercation occurred between Maiden and Bandy students at the football game. I have also received questions and seen media statements alleging that the recent Balls Creek Camp Ground fire was intentionally set in retaliation for an incident at the football game. The cause of the fire at Balls Creek Camp Ground is being investigated thoroughly by law enforcement and Catawba County Schools has no information regarding any evidence that has been collected relating to the fire.”

Authorities said the task force is continuing to look for more information from the public such as leads, pictures and videos from the area around Balls Creek Campground the night of the fire.

If you have information about this case, deputies said to call the Catawba County Sheriff’s Office at 828-464-5241.