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The Town That Won't Stop Burning
May 27, 2009 12:49 PM   Subscribe

The small, unassuming town of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, has suffered 50 fires in 15 months, making it the site of the country's worst arson epidemic in decades, and providing a frightening case study in how the crime of fire-setting can turn self-perpetuating. [via mefi projects]

Less than 2 square miles (5 square kilometers) in size, Coatesville is the only city in Chester County. As of a news article from March 9th, federal authorities say 67 fires have been set since February 2008 in Coatesville and the surrounding area. What has arson experts most horrified, and intrigued: the sheer number of suspects, most with apparently no connection to one another; the long stretch of time over which the crimes have occurred; the mysterious lack of a pattern.

A state of emergency was declared by the city manager in January of this year, and residents were told to remove items that could be used to start a fire from the outside of their homes or face possible fines. A curfew was in place in early February, prohibiting people under the age of 18 to be on the streets after 8pm.

More details on the 2008-2009 arsons in Coatesville, Pennsylvania wikipedia page, and extra coverage on The Daily Beast article, as reported by The Straightener.
posted by filthy light thief (26 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite

 
I would add that the Philly City Paper did a great cover story Coatesville is Burning back in February that was really great from a local coverage standpoint.
posted by The Straightener at 12:57 PM on May 27, 2009


Homeowner's insurance must be expensive in Coatesville.
posted by rageagainsttherobots at 1:07 PM on May 27, 2009


There are a lot of really short stories on WGAL.com, which paint a much broader picture, but are rather time consuming to sort through.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:14 PM on May 27, 2009


The Daily Beast would like to set 51 cookies on my machine.
posted by anazgnos at 1:22 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Although 2 square miles is 9 square kilometers.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:23 PM on May 27, 2009


Never mind. I was thinking 2 miles square.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:24 PM on May 27, 2009


Multiple suspects with no connections? No pattern? No motive? All within two square miles?

Check the town's water supply for mind-altering drugs or chemicals.
posted by Avenger at 1:29 PM on May 27, 2009


Stand alone complex?
posted by Binliner at 1:32 PM on May 27, 2009 [3 favorites]


Multiple suspects with no connections? No pattern? No motive? All within two square miles?


Also, check to see if the town is inside a T.C Boyle short story.
posted by The Whelk at 1:32 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Stand alone complex?
i have one. i don't like to use a cms if a client doesn't make me do so.
posted by the aloha at 1:37 PM on May 27, 2009


I just drove through Coatesville this weekend. We had gone out for a drive this Sunday, and were winding through country roads past farms and woods. Then we made a left turn, and drove through downtown Coatesville. It's a sad place.
As you drive through town, it seems like most of the businesses are boarded up. All of them have a faded, lost in time look. Really it's like the town died in the late 60s, and what is left is the decaying shell. It makes me think of Centralia which was abandoned after the coal mines under the town caught fire. Coatesville has that same abandoned feel, except we left all the people.
posted by Eddie Mars at 1:42 PM on May 27, 2009


I don't understand. Are these fires a mefi project?
posted by boymilo at 1:46 PM on May 27, 2009


I think it's interesting how the racial angle of this story is downplayed in so many accounts. I was born in Coatesville, went to Middle School in Downingtown, and grew up in several nearby small towns.

For most people in the region, Coatesville=black while Downingtown=white. The mutual race-based hatred is exacerbated by strong (and locally ecouraged) rivalries between the Downingtown/Coatesville school sports teams. Add to that the fact that that area of Pennsylvania is among the most racist and stratified I've ever experienced, and I'm not surprised it took so many arsons before people started to notice.
posted by coolguymichael at 1:57 PM on May 27, 2009


Stand alone complex?

Wait, is that my cue to begin a long discussion of the nature of free will, preferably while riding in a helicopter above a neon-lit city? Or was it my cue to flip out and kill people?

Or was it both?
posted by aramaic at 2:01 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Dammit, Jacob, I like a nice spliff as much as the next guy, but when you're too zooted to shoot a rocket launcher, maybe it's a sign.
posted by box at 2:18 PM on May 27, 2009


Pennsylvania is among the most racist and stratified

They were one of the last states to remove the clandestine status for Prince Hall brothers. But there seems to be other places if you wanna get your racism on.

Classism is alive and well all over however.

Or was it both?

Yes. At the same time. While sending tweets about each step to then link to in a metafilter post with your sockpuppet.
posted by rough ashlar at 2:27 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of how setting fire to Detroit on October 30th somehow managed to become a tradition.
posted by Pope Guilty at 3:08 PM on May 27, 2009


Multiple suspects with no connections? No pattern? No motive? All within two square miles?

Check the town's water supply for mind-altering drugs or chemicals.
posted by Avenger


When I started reading the Wikipedia link, I was thinking 'is the whole damn town built on a Superfund Site?', but it wasn't until the comments section of the story the The Straightener linked that I found an inkling of the kind of thing I was looking for:

[Coatesville was the site of the last lynching north of the Mason-Dixon Line. For decades it was a Company Town wherein all products were purchased from the company store. During the 20’s and 30’s towers topped with searchlights where erected to discourage union activity. And in the late 40’s, some madman ran around the city at night spraying poisonous gas into open windows]


There are a bunch of local businesses with "Nickel Mine" in their names, so I'm assuming the company of the "Company Town" the commenter referred to was a mining company which operated a nickel mine. Wouldn't surprise me if the town is built on (and of) tailings.

It's interesting the commenter mentioned a lynching in Coatesville; lynching is really a particularly malignant form of mass hysteria, and so is contagious arson.
posted by jamjam at 3:35 PM on May 27, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don't understand. Are these fires a mefi project?

I'll pretend you jest, so I'll clarify: Jeff Deeney is a freelance reporter and a MeFite. He covered this story and shot video to document this, and shared it on Projects. The fires are the mysterious part.

I was going to make some joke based around the lyrics to The Prophet, but I felt bad. Instead, you can think of some yourself, or just consider my humor to be in poor taste.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:45 PM on May 27, 2009


Not helping matters is the fact that the latest suspect, Robert Tracey, Jr., arrested two months ago, is not only white, but was also Coatesville’s assistant fire chief.

"Is it true that long ago firemen put fires out instead of going to start them?" — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:11 PM on May 27, 2009


When I saw "town that won't stop burning" and "Pennsylvania" I thought for sure this post would be about Centralia PA, which has been nearly abandoned due to an underground fire that has been burning for 40+ years.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 4:36 PM on May 27, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's Mr. Withers, and if you Mefi kids won't stop your meddling, all his plans will be ruined.
posted by Xoebe at 4:49 PM on May 27, 2009


Nickel ..... malignant form of mass hysteria

Some form of epigenetic damage from the heavy metals? And one can make the usual comments about the lower economic class living in the wastestream of the economically better off.
posted by rough ashlar at 5:03 PM on May 27, 2009


From my local hollah...

A rash of arsons in a small Pennsylvania town solved.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:52 PM on May 27, 2009


I hope they don't have a movie theater.
posted by iamkimiam at 9:19 PM on May 27, 2009


Firefighter Arson - An NVFC Special Report

Firefighter Arson: Local Alarm

Both a bit old (1990s) so the legal/regulatory aspect has likely changed. The personality aspect has likely not.
posted by dhartung at 11:13 PM on May 27, 2009


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