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Over the course of six months, beginning in November of 2012, there were over 60 arson fires along the Eastern Seaboard in Virginia. Long on the decline economically, the fires taxed local resources to the limit and caused residents of Accomack County to live in a constant state of anxiety. No one, however, was prepared for the revelation of who was setting the blazes. This is a fascinating look at one of the worst instances of a crime that covers its own tracks in the nation's history and a perceptive journey into the twisted minds of people psychologically drawn to images of flames and destruction. — Alden Graves
Hundreds of abandoned buildings pockmarked rural Accomack County, Virginia in 2012. Then, dozens were torched. A panicked community, the months-long search for the arsonist, his arrest, and his strange relationship with his girlfriend comprise a bizarre tale, which Hesse tells with fiery verve. — Mike Hare
The arsons started on a cold November midnight and didn't stop for months. Night after night, the people of Accomack County waited to see which building would burn down next, regarding each other at first with compassion, and later suspicion. Vigilante groups sprang up, patrolling the rural Virginia coast with cameras and camouflage. Volunteer firefighters slept at their stations. The arsonist seemed to target abandoned buildings, but local police were stretched too thin to surveil them all. Accomack was desolate--there were hundreds of abandoned buildings. And by the dozen they were burning.
The culprit, and the path that led to these crimes, is a story of twenty-first century America. Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse first drove down to the reeling county to cover a hearing for Charlie Smith, a struggling mechanic who upon his capture had promptly pleaded guilty to sixty-seven counts of arson. But as Charlie's confession unspooled, it got deeper and weirder. He wasn't lighting fires alone; his crimes were galvanized by a surprising love story. Over a year of investigating, Hesse uncovered the motives of Charlie and his accomplice, girlfriend Tonya Bundick, a woman of steel-like strength and an inscrutable past. Theirs was a love built on impossibly tight budgets and simple pleasures. They were each other's inspiration and escape...until they weren't.
Though it's hard to believe today, one hundred years ago Accomack was the richest rural county in the nation. Slowly it's been drained of its industry--agriculture--as well as its wealth and population. In an already remote region, limited employment options offer little in the way of opportunity. A mesmerizing and crucial panorama with nationwide implications, American Fire asks what happens when a community gets left behind. Hesse brings to life the Eastern Shore and its inhabitants, battling a punishing economy and increasingly terrified by a string of fires they could not explain. The result evokes the soul of rural America--a land half gutted before the fires even began.