The relentless series — more than 70 arsons — has sent flames shooting into the sky over this rural Eastern Shore county about every other night since mid-November and created a deepening urgency and mystery with each new spark.
The culprit or culprits seem to be taking great care to evade detection. Virginia State Police said the fires have been set in ways that they go undetected for an hour or two, although authorities declined to discuss those methods. Officers said the burned buildings, although scattered across the 450-square-mile county, are in areas with multiple escape routes.
“Whoever is doing this is really doing their homework,” said Ron S. Wolff (I-District 2), a member of the Accomack County Board of Supervisors.
Federal, state and local authorities have launched a major investigation, rushing to make an arrest before a fire turns deadly. Meanwhile, residents are on edge, and some see signs the fires are escalating.
Among residents, speculation about the arsonist and the motives for the fires swirls. Many say they think the carefully planned blazes point to someone familiar with firefighting or law enforcement or perhaps someone who has served in the military. Some say they think the arsonist could be someone angry with the county for not doing more to clean up blighted properties. Others entertain theories such as the government is using drones to blow up the properties.
On Friday afternoon, Ann Mills surveyed the smoldering remains of the old Cashville schoolhouse, which her husband used to store farm equipment.
“Three nights in a row. I would just like to know: Why?” Mills said. “I just don’t like that it’s getting bigger and bigger.”
The arsons have largely struck abandoned and dilapidated buildings that line the twisting country lanes in this old agrarian community. But some have hit properties such as the once popular Whispering Pines, which closed years ago and is emblematic of the area’s economic struggles. Accomack is among the poorer counties in Virginia and has lost 13 percent of its population since 2000, according to U.S. Census figures.
Those factors have created a ready tinderbox: Officials estimate there are 700 abandoned buildings in the county.
Fire in the night
Lois Gomez said she awoke about 3 a.m. to a loud banging on the front door of her Parksley home the night the arsonist struck. “Your garage is on fire!” a neighbor screamed.
Gomez and her husband rushed outside to find flames leaping from the back of their detached garage, about 20 feet behind their home and near a large propane tank. It was too late: Flames quickly incinerated $50,000 worth of items and irreplaceable keepsakes.