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ATF: suspicious fire at KUAR transmitter was likely arson

The KUAR transmitter building on Shinall Mountain west of Little Rock, which authorities say was intentionally set on fire Saturday.
Michael Hibblen
The KUAR transmitter building on Shinall Mountain west of Little Rock, which authorities say was intentionally set on fire Saturday.

Authorities say it appears likely that a fire which heavily damaged KUAR's transmitter on Saturday night was intentionally set.

“At this point in time we’re looking at it like an arson,” said Grover Crossland, resident agent in charge of the Little Rock office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Given the suspicious circumstances of the fire, Crossland says a dog trained used in fire investigations was brought to the tower site on Shinall Mountain, where most Little Rock radio and television stations broadcast their signals.

“The dog went out there and hit in some areas,” Crossland said. “That’s indicative of an accelerant being used, so we took samples. We will send it to the ATF lab in Washington, DC so they can make a determination of what type of accelerant was used.”

A small amount of copper used for grounding the transmitter also appears to have been stolen, though authorities are not sure if that was the motive. Investigators took fingerprints and other potential evidence from the site.

The fire at KUAR’s transmitter came just days after Texarkana NPR station KTXK was put off the air by someone firing a weapon at its tower. Authorities are also investigating that incident. Both come at a time when debate continues about the funding of public broadcasting by the federal government.

KUAR Engineer Tom Rusk was sent to the transmitter site Saturday evening after the air signal began cutting out, before going completely off the air. He found a gate that secures the tower was open. Driving up to small transmitter building, he realized it was on fire.

“I saw smoke coming out of two places in the transmitter building. I tried to access the transmitter and I found that my lock that would normally have been locked on the door had been ripped off and there was another lock that I did not recognize that was locking the building shut so I couldn’t get in it,” Rusk said.

It took responding firefighters with bolt cutters to eventually get inside and extinguish the fire. Several agencies are now taking part in the investigation.

KUAR's transmitter was most likely destroyed, with a makeshift transmitter now broadcasting the 89.1 FM signal at a low power. There is no damage estimate yet.

For several years, KUAR has been planning to move its transmitter to a different tower that would be shared with KATV-channel 7. General Manager Ben Fry says that had been slated to occur next year, but the project will likely now take place this year.

Michael Hibblen was a journalist for KUAR News from May 2009 — December 2022. During his final 10 years with the station, he served as News Director. In January 2023, he was hired by Arkansas PBS to become its Senior Producer/ Director of Public Affairs.