Saturday, March 09, 2013 12:51 pm
Arsons plague rural Eastern Shore of Va.
By BROCK VERGAKISAssociated Press
Since Nov. 12, 64 unoccupied structures in Accomack County have been torched, all at night. Nearly a dozen buildings have been burnt in the past week alone.
Just about every other day, the county's 33,000 residents wake up to news reports that another abandoned home, empty barn or dilapidated storage shed has burned to the ground. Sometimes it occurs in an empty field; sometimes it's across from or behind an occupied building. So far, nobody has been injured.
Many residents have resorted to leaving their lights on at night to let the arsonist - or arsonists, as Virginia State Police say is more likely - know the building isn't empty.
"It's teeing off a lot of people, making them mad and upset," Donald Varney said. "It's a serious thing. Eventually somebody's going to get hurt. Somebody has a very good chance of being killed in a situation like this."
As Varney spoke Wednesday, an unoccupied two-story home set ablaze the night before smoldered in a wooded area about a mile away. It was one of two structures set on fire Tuesday night, with the other several miles away. The distance is not uncommon, leading state investigators to believe at least two people are working together.
Varney runs a fishing tackle shop next door to his home on the Eastern Shore, which is sandwiched between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean and connected to the rest of Virginia by a singular bridge-tunnel and a seasonal ferry. But the shore's glory days as an agricultural, forestry and commercial fishing hub have long passed, and many of the structures being lit on fire are seemingly relics from a more prosperous era a century ago.
Today, only about 200 people in the county that borders Maryland work in the agricultural, fishing, hunting and forestry industry, according to state employment statistics.
One of the few areas of the county that has gone untouched by the fires is the more affluent and tourist-driven Chincoteague Island, where an annual pony swim draws thousands of visitors every year. And for reasons nobody knows, the southern portion of the two-county Eastern Shore has gone unscathed.
The Accomack County Sheriff's Office doesn't have an arson investigator on staff, so it turned over the investigation's lead to state police. The county has three dozen firefighters on staff, but it relies largely on about 600 volunteers with day jobs to battle the blazes each night.
Capt. Timothy Reibel said in a statement that state police believe the fires are generally being set an hour or two before they're discovered. Many are set along county's primary and secondary roads, allowing for an easy escape, he said. And in Accomack County, even primary roads aren't major thoroughfares.
"Some of the targeted structures have been in very remote, random locations throughout this rural county," Reibel said. "This not only makes the fires more difficult to detect, but also enables the criminal to come and go with minimal detection."
State police are working overtime to try to catch whoever is responsible, regularly patrolling the county's roads and skies and starting checkpoints this weekend. A tip line is set up with a $25,000 reward, and about 100 calls have come in. But police have released few details about who might be responsible.
At a December news conference, state police urged residents to be on the lookout for anyone who might bring up the fires, act differently when they're mentioned, or leave late at night.
While a handful of the fires are suspected of being started by copycats, the main culprit or culprits don't appear to be slowing down. And there are plenty of unoccupied buildings for them to target.
After the fires started in November, state police and county authorities drove around the labyrinth of isolated back roads that connect farms, small clusters of homes and fishing villages to one another. They counted about 800 abandoned buildings.
"One person's abandoned building is maybe another person's storage shed," said Grayson Chesser, who is on the county's board of supervisors. "If we had burned all the abandoned buildings in the county in the past, there would be a lot of historic homes destroyed, because a lot of them at one time or another were abandoned. But people do complain about them, and it's a legitimate complaint. But you know, we're not a wealthy county. We don't have funds to clean things like that up."
The median household income in Accomack County is about $41,000 a year, compared with about $63,000 for the rest of the state, according to census figures.
Many families like Chesser's have lived in the county for generations, working on farms and on the water. Today, though, the county's largest employers are two chicken-processing plants.
The county depends on tourists and part-time residents to help pay the bills. Many homes are occupied only part of the year by tourists and those who fish or hunt on weekends. Varney said he worries those buildings could be next, but is hopeful those responsible will be caught before that happens.
"A lot of people are saying that we're going to be very surprised at who the person is, that it's not just a plain old Joe doing it. It's somebody that we all know and probably kind of a prominent part of people here on the shore," he said. "We're going to know who he is."
Brock Vergakis can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis.