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Law enforcement and firefighting officials continue to investigate a string of arsons that have plagued Elk County since May 30.
The arson reports started with two fires in Ridgway before spreading to Johnsonburg. Recent fires in St. Marys have heightened concern over the summer blazes.
"We get a fair number of arson investigations every year in Elk County, but what's drawing attention this year is that there seems to be a substantial number of them since May 30," said Greg Agosti, a Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal stationed at the Ridgway barracks. "When they're close together, it appears that there's more of them. Every year we end up with arson investigations all across the county.
"I think on average for a year maybe we get 10 to 15 arson cases. We get a lot more fire investigations, and some are undetermined -- that could go either way, accidental or arson, and the others obviously we're able to conclude that they're accidental."
Pauline Smith of Ridgway was the first victim when a fire early Wednesday morning, May 30, destroyed her West Main Street residence. The blaze reportedly broke out between 5:15 and 5:30 a.m. and was ruled arson.
Officials investigated a June 17 fire that destroyed the Walnut Street home of Stephen and Georgina Gausman of Ridgway, who were out of town. The call reportedly came in at 2:58 a.m. The blaze caused an estimated $200,000 worth of damage and was determined to be arson.
Firefighters also responded early Thursday morning, June 28, at approximately 9 a.m. for a fire at the Old Johnsonburg Hotel along East Center Street in Johnsonburg. The fire was ruled an arson.
On July 3, the vacant St. Joe's Club at 703 Market St. in Johnsonburg went up in flames shortly after midnight. The cause of this fire was determined to be arson.
On July 9 at 11:36 p.m., firefighters were called to North St. Marys Street in St. Marys for a camper on fire. The fire destroyed the camper and damaged the house and a vehicle next to it. State police reported this incident to be arson as well.
On July 10 at 4:46 a.m., firefighters were called out to Berwind Street in St. Marys for a shed fire. The shed and all its contents were destroyed. The cause of this fire is still under investigation and the cause has not yet been determined.
On July 10 at 10:50 p.m., the fire chief and police in St. Marys were called to investigate a car fire on Rettger Street. On arrival, it was found that the front driver's seat of a vehicle had been burned and this was determined to have been arson. The car suffered minor damage and is still drivable.
On July 14 at 4:24 a.m., firefighters were called out for a structure fire at 137 Lynch Rd. in St. Marys. The fire caused heavy damage to the structure and the cause was determined to be arson and is still under investigation.
"The answer to the question of whether or not these arson cases are related will lie somewhere in the future," Agosti said. "We're looking at these cases every way possible -- we're looking at them in terms of whether or not they're connected and for things that are common in every scene. We're looking at them to see if some are similar, and maybe some are separate.
"Right now I can't say that they're all connected and I can't say that they're all separate."
The fires have reportedly been set after sunset, with some occurring in the early morning hours.
"Then we saw some in St. Marys that were around 11 p.m., and obviously that's a lot earlier but still dark," Agosti said. "There are some factors at face value that seem common and then other factors we've seen seem to suggest that they're separate. We struggle with trying to find out if we're dealing with a separate actor, or more than one person."
Investigative practices remain shrouded in secrecy, as no reported arrests have been made.
"I don't like to use the word 'suspect' but for lack of a better term, we have investigated several people," Agosti said. "We hear rumors, we see people that might be present at a scene and we investigate to find out if they should've been there or if there is any truth behind a rumor and so forth.
"We've looked at people but we haven't concluded anything. I don't have anybody in jail for this yet. When that happens, that'll be the point in time when we have all our ducks in a row."
Several eyewitness reports place several members of the Ridgway Fire Department and at least two troopers for the Ridgway-based State Police searching a brush area along Grant Road in Ridgway Township on Wednesday evening, July 11, but officials at the barracks would not comment.
Despite ruling 13 fires arsons thus far this year, Agosti remains confident that the cases will be solved.
"These kinds of things happen and this isn't our first go-around with sequential fire investigations," Agosti said. "There were some cases in McKean County in 2009 and in Clearfield County in 2009 as well."
There was a string of arsons in southern Clearfield County back in 2009 that reportedly culminated with the death of a Westover firefighter. According to Agosti, this spree was mostly barns and vacant houses.
In October of 2009, authorities arrested a McKean County firefighter for burning two fire stations and a house. There were reportedly roughly eight arson investigations that spread from February 2009 to October 2009 in McKean County but once the arrest was made for those particular cases, the fires stopped.
In 2005, out of 16 reported arsons in Elk County, eight occurred within 22 hours between Fox and Benezette townships at campsites. Those cases were cleared by three arrests in connection to that spree.
Trooper Bruce Morris, a PSP community service officer (CSO) stationed at the Ridgway barracks, said community involvement will be a key in solving the cases.
"The big thing is that people have to call us," Morris said. "Some people see something but justify not calling by thinking that maybe somebody else will do it or 'maybe that's not what I saw.'
"People have to call right away. You see it, you think it, call."
Pick up a copy of the Saturday, July 21, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.