Mass. fires: Set by thrill-seekers or villain?

By Stephanie Reitz
Associated Press Writer / December 28, 2009

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NORTHAMPTON, Mass.—A string of suspicious fires that destroyed three homes and killed two men have many residents on edge, wondering whether they were set by thrill-seekers or someone bent on causing harm.

Authorities have recorded several so-called nuisance fires in recent years in the Northampton neighborhood known as Ward 3, but none as destructive as the nine fires set early Sunday that targeted at least five structures and three cars.

No arrests had been announced by midday Monday.

Mayor Clare Higgins appealed to residents to be vigilant and report anything they know about the fires, but also to avoid causing more alarm by spreading unfounded rumors.

"Northampton is a strong and resilient community ... we are a city of neighborhoods forged by the great care of generations of good neighbors, and that will not be undone by this terrible series of fires," she said. "We have a strong tradition of civic and communal generosity which is stronger by far than the fear and outrage that this week's events have engendered."

Authorities say they are also investigating other fires that appear to have been set but were doused by the night's rain before taking hold. All the fires were within a half-mile radius, including one that killed two men.

Authorities have not released their names, but state property records list Paul Yeskie Jr. as the house's owner. Several neighbors identified the victims as Paul Yeskie Sr., an 81-year-old retired mason, and Paul Yeskie Jr., his 39-year-old son.

They told stories of the older man's meticulously tended vegetable garden, the clematis that bloomed in his front yard and the magnolia he babied to help it return to its full vigor after an ice storm nearly killed it.

On Monday, the charred remains of that magnolia stood in front of the heavily damaged home, where police and fire officials worked behind yellow caution tape.

Leon Jasinski, who lives two doors away from the fire, said Monday that the family has lived in the home for at least three decades, and the older man's wife lives upstairs. Authorities have said a woman living upstairs escaped the fire but did not identify her.

Like others in the neighborhood, Jasinski said he's grieving the loss of his friends while wondering who would be reckless enough to ignite an occupied home.

Jasinski was awakened just after 2 a.m. by someone banging on his door. He emerged to see his neighbors' screened-in porch ablaze and cinders flying everywhere despite the rain. And then, he said, the fire "just took off" before anyone could get close enough to help.

"The whole family was so nice. People were crying, people in the neighborhood can't sleep. We all know it could have been my own house, it could have been my own family," Jasinski said.

Barbara Smith and her husband, Peter Boody, thought the same thing when they heard the news about the fire -- and thought immediately of the numerous nuisance fires that have been set in cars, leaf piles and elsewhere over the past few years.

"It's unsettling. That's the best word to describe it," she said. "There's been a lot of these incidents, smaller ones, but now that there's a death, I'm glad they've got the big brass in to investigate."

The area's neighborhood association also has called an emergency meeting for Tuesday night, calling it a "time of crisis for us all."

A task force of state, regional and federal officials is investigating the fires, and Gov. Deval Patrick has announced a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is helping in the investigation.