Suspicious fires rattle tiny Berkshire
town of Mount Washington; historic
By Heather Bellow, The Berkshire Eagle
MOUNT WASHINGTON — Three suspicious fires early Sunday have left a community on edge, and officials are asking residents in Berkshire’s smallest town to remain calm yet vigilant.
“It just looks like we need to find out what’s happening here,” said Brian Tobin, a Select Board member as well as acting police chief and director of emergency management. “It’s a small town and people are very, very upset.”
Tobin told The Eagle he sent an email to residents Sunday asking them to keep on alert and to call 911 to report anything suspicious. He also informed residents that state police have stepped up cruiser patrols in this mountainous town nestled in the woods. A helicopter had also surveyed the area Sunday, he added.
He also told residents that local firefighters continue to be at the ready.
“Egremont Fire Chief Joe Schneider and his dedicated fire fighters, as well as Police and Fire Departments from neighboring communities, are doing everything they can to preserve our safety and well-being,” Tobin wrote.
The fires destroyed three structures in close proximity to each other off West Street in the remote southwestern Berkshire County town near the New York and Connecticut border. Mount Washington has a full-time population of 160, with roughly the same number of part-time homeowners, Tobin said.
Two of the structures — a historic 18th century cottage and another residence
— were in Mount Washington State Forest and were owned by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation. A third blaze partially destroyed a private home in the woods across the street. None of the homes were occupied, and there were no injuries.
The fires are being investigated as likely connected and considered suspicious, according to a release from the State Fire Marshal’s Office
Tobin reported the fires about 1Z15 a.m. after guests noticed the flames across the valley as they left a Christmas party at his home on East Street.
“They came back into the house, and from our deck, you could see the fires,” he said.
Tobin went to the scene, and then noticed the third blaze across the street. He said the Egremont fire trucks were there quickly.
In a statement issued Monday afternoon, Chief Schneider said that he and firefighters arrived to find the two DCR structures fully involved. The first alarm, he wrote, requested a tanker task force and that pulled in mutual aid from Great Barrington and Sheffield, as well as Copake, Hillsdale and Craryville in New York. He said while the fires were quickly contained, all structures are considered a total loss.
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State police attached to the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office and the State Fire Marshal’s Office arrived later. Tobin, who remained at the scene until around 5Z30 a.m., said Great Barrington and Sheffield police also responded with K-9 units.
The chimney is all that remains of the Benjamin Osborn House, which was built around 1759; it was also known as the Mother Ann Lee house, for the Quaker founder who reportedly stayed at the home during a mission in May 1781.
According to a book by Richard Francis, “Ann the Word: The Story of Ann Lee, Female Messiah, Mother of the Shakers,” Ann Lee spent about 10 days there, “attracting large numbers of both sympathizers and detractors.”
DCR acquired the cottage in 1958, and in 1987, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The other home that was destroyed on the property sat about 100 feet from the cottage, and also was abandoned. Neither structure had electricity.
The private home across the street is owned by Dania Jekel, of Newton, according to the town’s Registry of Deeds. She could not be reached for comment on Monday.
In this rugged area of state forest with deeply rutted dirt roads — on Monday morning they were being filled in by town workers — one of the homes still smoldered, and two DCR workers were on the scene inspecting the damage.
DCR spokesman Troy Wall said in an email that the agency is working with detectives and will begin to assess the property and begin a cleanup when the investigation is complete.
The investigation is ongoing by the Egremont Fire Department and state police assigned to the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office.
Tobin said the other residence that was destroyed on the DCR property had not been occupied since the 1980s, and was slated to be razed eventually. He also said that he learned from DCR officials that they did have plans to preserve the Osborn cottage, however, and possibly open it to visitors.
He said there was no inkling around town of who might have been responsible for what appears to be arson. Town officials are still waiting for word from investigators, he added.
“These things don’t typically happen in a small town,” he said. “People are understandably nervous. But no additional threats are known right now.”
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-32-6971.
Date Monday, December 16, 2019
Location Wes Street
Collection Berkshire Eagle