There's been an unusual crime wave in our neck of the woods lately. Over the last week or two, someone has set a string of several arson fires. Most of the fires have been in empty (or abandoned-looking) old barns sitting by themselves out in the country. In other words, easy targets for a bunch of teenage punks who want to see how big a blaze they can start. But over this last weekend, a couple of sheds/old barns right in the town of Loda were torched.
The reaction has been interesting. Out here, we literally cannot rely on the police to come to our rescue. Loda has no police force, and most of the blazes have been in rural Ford/Iroquois counties. In other words, the chances of a cop coming across an arsonist are slightly less than zero. So, residents are taking things into their own hands. Some of our neighbors are drawing up lists of all the known abandoned/isolated buildings that dot the open prairie, so as to better keep an eye open for suspicious activity. And some of these buildings are not truly abandoned; they sit on what used to be homestead sites, but now are simply a big machine shed housing a farmer's equipment (the farmer himself may even live in town).
Abandoned or not, what all these properties have in common is that no one is around to watch them. Our neighbors are now going out of their way to watch them. Out here in the country, all the roads form a grid; each road is one mile away from the next. In going from Point A to Point B, most of us have a fixed route we tend to use --- but it doesn't really add any distance if we instead jog down a different set of streets on the same grid. (It means some extra turns, but not any extra distance.) The general color, make, and model of the arsonist's car is known (a red, late model, Pontiac Grand Am), so all of us have been keeping our eyes peeled for that as we jog around the grid roads looking at the isolated buildings.
Despite the vigilance, the arsonist(s) hit again last night. Just as we were about to put the kids to bed, a fire truck went screaming down our road. "Go follow it!" Mrs Yeoman Farmer urged. I grabbed a large flashlight...and a large caliber handgun with a full magazine. If I happened to come across a car matching the suspect's, with a group of teenagers sitting on the roof admiring their latest blaze, I didn't want to have to rely on the police to come protect me from them.
Turns out, a lot of other people had the same idea. Up and down our road, other vehicles were coming out of driveways and following the fire engine. We found the blaze; it was about five miles north, and was an old barn. Nearly a dozen emergency vehicles, from all the tiny surrounding communities, had responded and the fire was smouldering by the time I got there. I spent some time jogging up and down grid roads, working my way home, but didn't see anything. Stopped at a neighbor's, and the teen aged son was standing in the driveway with a 12 gauge shotgun; his father was still out driving up and down rural roads looking for the suspects. Their own outbuildings didn't have night time security lighting, and the son had stayed home to make sure those buildings didn't become an easy target of opportunity while Dad was gone. We chatted for a few minutes, comparing notes, and then I went home to call it a night.
Our property has a couple of very old outbuildings that would make inviting targets for an arsonist like this one. It's been gratifying knowing that (1) our security light keeps most of them illuminated all night; (2) our two dogs bark and anything that moves; and (3) especially, our neighbors are keeping a close eye out for suspicious activity.
The latest update is that neighbors are talking with the county Sheriff's office to coordinate stake-outs of some of the more isolated buildings tonight. How to best accomplish that, without tipping off the arsonists, will no doubt be the biggest topic of discussion.
On the one hand, it's terribly dispiriting to know that a serial arsonist is on the loose in this tranquil, low-crime community. But on the other hand, it's been incredibly inspiring to watch that same community organize itself to take that arsonist off the streets.