Arsons plague rural Eastern Shore of Va.
MELFA, Va. (AP) — On the Eastern Shore of Virginia, flames light up the sky nearly every other night as a string of arsons turns this ordinarily peaceful peninsula into a pyromaniac's playground.
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.