Firefighter Faces More Charges

A George County firefighter already charged with woods arson, faces additional charges of deliberately starting other fires, authorities said. A fellow firefighter is also charged in the case. 33 year old Billy Joe Fortner was charged Monday with three more woods fires in addition to the Feb. 25 fire on Homestead Road for which he was arrested late last week. Fortner, with the Ward Volunteer Fire Department since 1999, is accused of deliberately starting woods fires in March 2001 and last month on Union Church Road and one fire on CCC Road on Feb. 28, arson investigator Mitchell Mixon said.

21 year old William Andrew Howell of Lucedale, another Ward volunteer firefighter, also was arrested Monday for the February fires on Homestead and Union Church roads and for a fire on Gavin Churchwell Road on Feb. 15. He has been with the department for about one year. About 26 acres were burned as a result of the fires Fortner allegedly set and about six acres burned from the fires in the Howell case, Mixon said. If convicted, Fortner could serve up to eight years in prison; Howell, up to six years. Fortner is free on bond, while Howell was held Tuesday in lieu of $5,000 bond, authorities said.

Ward Fire Chief Lynwood Mallette said both men have been suspended from the department, which demanded they turn in all their firefighting equipment and other department items. ``It's up to the law now to do their thing,'' Mallette said. Mixon said sometimes firefighters in small departments may start fires ``to give them something to do.'' ``To my knowledge, this is the first time this has ever happened in George County,'' Mixon said.