Series of Arsons Have Virginia Residents on Edge
Sandy Morrow had been up late, baking bread in the kitchen past midnight.
For more than a month, she'd been hearing about the arsons across Accomack County. The house a couple of doors down from Morrow was set ablaze in November. Police even stopped by, making rounds to residents to talk about the fires.
Morrow didn't think she was at risk. The burned buildings had been vacant, and the house she and her mother shared on Hopeton Road in Parksley was clearly occupied.
That December night, Morrow went into the bedroom to change. She was gone no more than a few minutes. When she returned to the kitchen, Morrow could feel the heat.
About 15 feet from the back door, flames spilled from the top of her storage shed, curling back toward the roof like a wave.
Firefighters extinguished the blaze before it could reach the house, but the 60-foot-long shed was a total loss. Morrow had moved in to care for her elderly mother in 2007 and stored all of her own belongings in the shed. Morrow lost nearly everything, about $20,000 worth, she said, including a handmade crib her daughter once slept in. She had been saving it for her granddaughter.
That marked the 32nd fire in a string that now includes 48 confirmed arsons in Accomack County since Nov. 12 - including six so far this month - according to Virginia State Police. Two additional fires and an attempted arson at a church were being investigated this week, although state police have not said whether those incidents were believed to be connected.
Three months after the first fire was set, residents on the Eastern Shore say they're ready for it to be over before it escalates further. Although no injuries have been reported, much damage has been done, Morrow said.
"He doesn't realize, or he doesn't care, what he's doing to people," she said.
Police estimated that the county contains more than 600 abandoned structures, and that vacant homes have been prime targets. State police have said it's likely the fires are being set by more than one person, possibly working together. Several fires were likely set by copycats, police have said.
In November, the county saw 22 arsons, 12 in the first week. After a Christmas Eve arson in Nelsonia, none occurred for almost a month.
The next confirmed arson happened Jan. 20 in Nelsonia. Five arsons were recorded in January, and at least six have taken place so far this month.
The county relies on 33 paid full-time fire and paramedic personnel and 600 volunteers, many of whom work during the day, according to the county's Department of Public Safety. A fire may require 20 firefighters to work a scene for hours, often in the middle of the night.
State Police are working with the Accomack County Sheriff's Office, the state's Department of Fire Programs and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Authorities have increased patrols and surveillance in the county.
Police this week increased the reward for information leading to a conviction from $5,000 to $25,000.
It's difficult to build a profile of a serial arsonist, said Greg Orfield, president of the Tidewater Regional Arson Panel. They tend to be men, Orfield said, although the age of offenders varies.
The most common motivators are pyromania - the uncontrollable urge to set a fire - or spite and revenge, Orfield said. When pyromania is in play, the arsonist generally progresses, and the fires grow larger in scale.
What drives such a person can shift.
"After a while, the motives can even change in midstream," Orfield said.
Serial arson has happened before on the Eastern Shore.
After suspicious fires in Virginia and Maryland, David Clifton Parks, a former Norfolk firefighter and longtime Eastern Shore resident, pleaded guilty in Maryland in 2006 to two counts of arson and two misdemeanor counts of reckless endangerment. He had been charged with setting four fires in the same night in Salisbury, Md.
Parks was arrested again for arson last summer in Maryland and is awaiting an April trial in the Worcester, Md., county jail.
Vance Lewis, owner of Vances Furniture and Appliances in Melfa, nearly lost his business to fire several years ago.
The store was in a 100-year-old wood-frame building that burned to the ground one night in 2005. It took more than a year for Lewis to rebuild.
At first, he had to operate out of a camper behind the burned-out site. When he finally reopened in January 2007, he had no heat and enough electrical capacity to light only one lamp and the "open" sign, he said.
As the string of arsons continues, "it's in the back of my mind," Lewis said.
"I can't go through that again. That was a nightmare."
Back in Parksley, the remains of Morrow's shed have since been taken away, and a patch of concrete floor and a charred grapevine are all that remain.
Morrow said people have been telling her she's lucky; what she lost was "just stuff." But to Morrow, those possessions carried memories.
At first, she felt hurt by the fire, Morrow said. Now, she's angry.
"The only thing I want to know is, 'Why?' " Morrow said.
Margaret Matray, 757-222-5150,
if you know anything about the fires
Call or text the Virginia State Police Eastern Shore arson hotline at 757-655-1437.
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