Cherokee man set fires, then got paid to put them out

A wildfire crackles as it approaches Bat Cave in this November photo.
A wildfire crackles as it approaches Bat Cave in this November photo. AP

A Cherokee man has pleaded guilty to setting wildfires on tribal lands in Western North Carolina – fires he was paid to help put out.

Raymond Neal Swayney, 31, of Cherokee, pleaded guilty in federal court in Asheville on Monday to intentionally setting fires on Indian lands. He faces up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine at sentencing.

Swayney was among temporary fireighters hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said a release from Jill Westmoreland Rose, U.S. Attorney for North Carolina’s western district. The firefighters are paid only for the hours they spend putting out fires or doing related maintenance.

Swayney and others purposely set seven fires between 2010 and 2014 to earn that pay, the federal prosecutor’s office said. The fires burned 420 acres on the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians reservation that cost BIA $106,000 to extinguish.

Swayney pleaded guilty Monday to one count of conspiracy to set timber afire and to defraud the United States. A sentencing date has not been set.

Wildfires burned more than 55,000 acres across North Carolina’s mountains and foothills in November after months of drought. Rain that began moving through the region last week has helped control most of them.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender