NEW YORK // A small town in Pennsylvania has declared a state of emergency after being terrorised by arsonists who have caused 14 fires in the past three weeks, leaving officials perplexed as to who was causing them and why. Police have speculated the fires might be part of gang initiation rites but no one knows for sure. There have been around 30 fires in total since the start of last year in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a community of about 11,000 people about 70 kilometres west of Philadelphia.
Ron Townsend, who was burnt out of his home on Jan 6, told CNN he found the gang initiation theory "hard to believe because all the houses that are burning up, it seems to be, in my opinion, some kind of method to the madness". The fires have caused one death, damage worth about US$3 million (Dh11m) and untold emotional distress. "Since the initial outbreak of these horrific arsons, we have provided food, shelter, financial assistance and other services to 26 families, all victims of arson - a total of 80 people including 53 adults and 27 children - who have lost their homes," said Tom Foley of the American Red Cross.
"Red Cross caseworkers are also working one on one with all the displaced residents to address their specific needs, including offering emotional care and helping with longer-term recovery plans." The local police said more than one person was involved because there were so many fires and some of them occurred within minutes of each other. This year's fires could be copycats because three people believed to be responsible for last year's arson attacks were arrested in December.
"The more we caught them, the more fires were set," said Harry Walker, the city manager. Coatesville is within easy access of Route 222 - a 140km motorway that connects New York; Newark, New Jersey; Philadelphia and Baltimore, Maryland and known for years to be a pipeline for gangs involved in the drugs trade. Regardless of the arsonists' identity and motive, residents say they are terrified. Robin Scott, a local councilwoman, saw her home destroyed on Saturday night when a fire damaged 15 homes in total. She and her family got out safely after police alerted them.
"To see it all happen the way that it did was devastating and I wouldn't wish that on anyone," she said. Many of the fires started when rubbish bins outside homes were set alight. Authorities urged residents to keep their outside lights on and remove flammable materials from their porches. "It costs 76 cents a week to keep your porch light on," said William Matthews, the police chief. "That 76 cents should be considered a down payment on the safety of your family and friends in the neighbourhood."
The local Citizens Crime Commission is offering a reward of up to $5,000 for any information, firefighters are canvassing neighbourhoods to make sure residents have smoke detectors with working batteries, and volunteers are being urged to keep watch on the streets. "There aren't enough cops," Calvin Grove of Coatesville Men United, a volunteer group, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. "Until people get off their tails and get out here, it won't stop."
The fires have been an extra blow to those without house insurance or who have been out of work because of the recession. "Everybody that's willing to help as far as getting another home needs me to show some kind of employment right now and I can't do that," Mr Townsend said. "So it's kind of tough; it's really tough." email@example.com