June brush fire rekindles arson fears in Mount Washington

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MOUNT WASHINGTON — Investigators are asking the public for help cracking a fourth suspected case of arson off West Street after a large brush fire last month.

The fire appeared to have burned itself out, according to Jennifer Mieth, public information officer for the state Department of Fire Services.

Egremont Fire Chief Joe Schneider, whose company also covers Mount Washington, said no one had reported the fire at the time, and that he learned of it later from investigators.

Detectives with the Office of the State Fire Marshal still do not know the exact date of that fire. 

It is the latest fire to rattle the area in the last six months. On Dec. 14, an arsonist set three structures ablaze, one after another, burning a historic cottage to the ground, gutting a second abandoned home on the same state-owned property, and badly damaging a house across the dirt road.

Multiple fire companies, led by Egremont, responded after a guest leaving a Christmas party around 1:15 a.m. saw flames from afar rippling in the state forest.

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State police began roaming the area soon after, and residents — about half of whom are second homeowners — have since feared another arson spree.

Mieth said no arrests have been made, and that the investigation is active and ongoing. Initially, police said they had some leads.

"It's very strange," Schneider said of the fires, noting that arriving at those scenes was disquieting.

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Despite that case appearing to have gone cold, an increased state police presence remains in what is one of the state's smallest towns, said Select Board Chairman Brian Tobin.

"People are being more careful," he said, noting that the feeling among residents is that "closure" is unlikely.

Tobin says he knows nothing about the brush fire, though he's been asked about it.

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And it hasn't helped settle nerves that down the road, a 170-year-old school house slated for state historic preservation money was vandalized with spray paint several months ago. It's since been repainted, but residents are wary of threats to this cherished building.

"It's out of sight so we need to keep an eye on it," Tobin said.

Arson is not new to West Street or the larger area, here at the border with New York state.

In 1993, an arsonist burned down the main building of the Alice Rich Northrop Memorial Camp, a fresh air camp off West Street for low income children from Manhattan. The camp is a short walk from the arsonist's December targets.

And between 1980 and 1992, around 40 fires in the surrounding Copake, N.Y., area were attributed to an arsonist. Some of those devastated farms and businesses, and those cases remain cold.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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