Northampton Community Copes With Arson

A firefighter stands in front of the remains of a house on 17 Fair St. in Northampton, Mass. on Sunday, Dec. 27. A father and son died in the house fire early Sunday morning as firefighters struggled to put out more than a half dozen blazes, authorities said. (AP)

A firefighter stands in front of the remains of a house on 17 Fair St. in Northampton, Mass. on Sunday, Dec. 27. A father and son died in the house fire early Sunday morning as firefighters struggled to put out more than a half dozen blazes, authorities said. (AP)

Northampton, MASS. — State, local and federal officials are working together to try to find out who is responsible for a string of fires that killed two people in Northampton on Sunday morning.

Fire officials said that between 2:00 a.m. and 3:15 a.m., at least 11 fires were deliberately set within a one-mile radius of downtown. More than a dozen neighboring fire departments were called in to help extinguish the flames.

Two people were found dead on the first floor of their Fair St. home. Officials declined to confirm their identities, pending autopsies by the state medical examiner.

Nate Rickles lives a few doors down from one of the houses that caught on fire.

“When we were watching it, nobody had any idea of the magnitude of the whole ordeal. We had no idea that there was actually ten other fires going on at the same time or in the same ward,” Rickles said.

A task force that includes officials from local fire and police departments, the State Department of Fire Services and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Explosives has been established to investigate the fires.

“I want the public to know that every resource at the local level, at the state level and at the ATF that is available is being applied to deal with this,” Governor Deval Patrick said.

Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel said there have been a number of other suspicious fires over the last several years.

“They may or may not be related and I want to be clear about that. To say they’re related at this point would be pure speculation,” said Scheibel.

Local residents are coming to grips with the magnitude of the incident.

“The community is stunned, the community is upset, the community is angry,” said Gerald Budgar, president of the Neighborhood Association in Ward 3, where most of the fires occurred. “The community wants to know what it can do to start to heal and bind itself together again.”

He said he’s been inundated with calls from people wanting to know how they can provide relief and support to the victims of the fires.

“What’s most comforting to me is the outpouring of support and offers of assistance that we’ve had from all over the city and outside the city,” he said.

Budgar added that people across the area are worried about the risk of future arson, especially given Northampton’s history.

Local citizens are planning to meet with Northampton Mayor Mary Clare Higgins, city council members and other state officials Wednesday night to discuss the fires and new security precautions for the city.

“We’re going to discuss how we can assist the victims, hints for securing your property, making it safer, and we’re going to talk about adding to the reward fund,” said Budgar. “Most importantly, I think, is a neighborhood watch for the ward.”

Residents are also connecting online with a Facebook group, which grew to over 2,000 members just a day and a half after the fires.

Mayor Higgins stressed the importance of vigilance across Northampton.

“We are a caring and warm community and I know that the citizens here are rising up to assist their neighbors, assist their friends to help keep our community safe,” she said. “The way to solve this crime is for people to keep their eyes open and work with our police department and our fire department.”

A $5,000 reward is being offered for any information leading to a break in the case.

WBUR’s Jess Bidgood and Ted Siefer contributed to this report.

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  • http://www.valnelson.com Val Nelson

    I live and work in Northampton and it’s all we’re talking about today.
    Having survived a fire years ago, I am moved by all that is already happening in a short amount of time to support the victims. There will be a community meeting tomorrow night and there is a Facebook group with photos, donation offers, updates, and more; it already has 1000 members in only 24 hours. Very impressive what a loving community can achieve, with a little help from technology.

  • Bill

    This is so hideous and evil. There must have been a lot of accelerant used to start so many fires at once, so I hope they are looking at Northampton and vicinity gas station videos and stores selling gas cans in the days before for clues. Leave no stone unturned, get these B’tards!

  • http://tobern.com tobe

    i’m shocked and stunned but not really surprised. i lived in that exact same neighborhood for two years. and while i was there, some idiot burned down the house two doors down and several cars in our street, including one in our driveway right behind our kitchen. man this is so messed up, i used to go running past that house on fair st. this has been going on for years and nobody figured it out, or really bothered to figure it out. it’s a shame that people always have to die first before some real effort is made.

  • Hawley Street Resident

    Although I am thankful for the response and dedication of firefighters, police, etc., I, too, am not surprised that it has come to this. I am also disappointed in certain comments made (e.g. the mayor saying that we want to live in a community where we can leave our cars unlocked but that, right now, we need to lock them for safety). I don’t know which part of town the major lives in, but much of the ward three area has not felt safe for a long, long time. Comments such as this downplay the fear and struggles that residents of this area of Northampton have been facing for years. As a resident of Hawley street, I have never left anything unlocked and have not slept soundly for years. This is simply not a safe area, despite the “Northampton as a safe and caring community” myth. Arson has been occurring and escalating for years now, and has included houses, porches, and completely burned out cars. While some recent reports have claimed that the area has been plagued by “small fires” for years, these fires have not felt small to me. And, frankly, a rash of “small” or “smaller” fires should have been a major concern for everyone all along, since arsonists tend to start and then escalate in that manner. The area is also prone to break-ins, the open use of a variety of drugs, and other disturbances. True, here was some response form the town in the form of “meetings” at which we were given safety tips and the assurance that things were being investigated. Still, I have not seen, until now, any real evidence of increased police presence or heard any facts, news, or updates on the investigations. I was even told by one officer, after a break in several years ago, that the best solution was probably to move away from this part of town, if we could. Although the other night was particularly horrific and tragic due to both the number of fires and the deaths, there have been many horrible incidents before, that I do not feel were given satisfactory attention by the town or taken seriously enough by residents. . I find this particularly vexing since it is one of the few areas in town where working people can still (almost) afford to rent. I hope that in the light of the tragedies that have now occurred, the increased police presence we are seeing, and the investigations that have been initiated will not wane over time as they seem to have done in the past.

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