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'Suspicious' Fires Under Investigation


by Jerry Goshert

Published: Friday, May 7, 2021

Two barn fires within three miles of each other were reported late Monday night near Wakarusa. The chief of the Wakarusa Fire Department says one of the fires, on C.R. 1 between C.R.s 28 and 30, is considered to be of "suspicious" origin and is under investigation. Meanwhile, the chief of the Madison Twp. Fire Department in St. Joseph County (Ind.) was meeting with an official with the state fire marshal's office to determine the cause of the second barn fire, located along Ash Road, just north of New Road.

The first blaze was reported at 10:40 p.m. at a farm located at 61524 C.R. 1, Elkhart. The property is owned by Gary Eby.

According to Wakarusa Fire Chief Kameron Brubaker, the blaze was fully involved when firefighters arrived at the scene. He said the cause is "suspicious" and is under investigation.

The barn and its contents, including several antique tractors, were destroyed. The fire also damaged a straw shed.

In addition to fire units from Wakarusa, other departments responding included Harrison Twp., Baugo Twp., Penn Twp., Concord Twp. and Cleveland Twp. They left the scene at around 4 a.m.

No one was injured in the fire.

Brubaker said the two barns destroyed Monday night are the latest in a series of unfortunate losses for area barn owners. He estimated there have been four or five other barn fires in the past month just in Elkhart County. On April 26, a nearly 100-year-old barn west of Milford was completely destroyed by fire. That blaze is also under investigation.

There have also been two barn fires in the New Paris area during that span of time.

All of the fires have occurred on Monday evenings.

Eby said he is aware of the string of recent barn fires and believes the blaze that destroyed his barn was intentionally set.

"There's no question in my mind that it was arson," said Eby, adding that he had updated the barn's electrical system about 10 years ago.

He said the century-old barn was made with old-fashioned timber framing.

On Monday evening, Eby had just gone to bed when he noticed a bright light shining through his window. Initially, he thought it was from a car that had pulled in the driveway. However, when he looked out the window, he saw that his barn was on fire. He told his wife to call 911.

Eby said firefighters worked quickly to keep the fire from spreading to other structures, even as prevailing winds blew embers and small pieces of the debris toward the house.

"We feel really fortunate, because my wife was in that little room right there," Eby said, pointing to the house. "It got so hot she couldn't stay in that room, and the first thing when the fire trucks got here they started pumping water on the house. They saved the house."

Firefighters also prevented the fire from reaching the garage, workshop and a propane tank.

However, Eby lost four tractors in the blaze, including a 1968 John Deere 4020 that he purchased new after returning home from military service in 1968.

"I really hated to lose that, because it's been with me (during) my whole farming career," he said.

He also lost three other tractors, a 1960 John Deere 530, a John Deere 630 and a utility tractor purchased about 10 years ago. He also lost 50 bales of straw in the fire.

Eby, who is retired from farming, said he doesn't know why someone would want to burn down his barn. But considering the rash of recent barn fires, he figures the perpetrator must be "some nut."

The second fire of the evening was reported at around 11 p.m. at 63895 Ash Rd., in St. Joseph County. The barn is owned by Rodney and Debbie Schmidt, who do not live at the farm but were in the process of fixing up a house there.

The Schmidts were alerted by neighbors at around 11:15 p.m. By the time they arrived at the farm, firefighters were already at the scene battling the blaze. Fire crews from Madison Twp., Bremen, Wyatt, Harrison Twp., Foraker, Concord Twp. and Wakarusa provided aid. They were still at the scene when the family left at 2:30 a.m.

The barn housed a tractor, manure spreader, a trailer, antiques, several appliances, cabinets, lumber and other valuables.

"We were actually taking everything out of the house and sorting through it and storing it in the barn," Debbie said. "We had everything we owned in there. We were getting ready to put in a new kitchen, so the whole kitchen appliances were stored in there."

The fire also melted the side of their camper parked nearby.

Debbie said they had just finished putting a new roof on the barn, along with adding new windows and siding. The bank barn had been in the family for five generations.

She said there was no electrical power running to the barn, so she was at a loss to explain how the fire started.

At midday Tuesday, her brother, Dave Stickel, was still putting out hot spots as Debbie waited for the state fire marshal to arrive and determine an official cause. The Madison Twp. fire chief was not available for comment at press time. However, someone answering the phone said he was meeting with the state fire marshal's office.

Aware of the Eby barn fire, Schmidt said she was still trying to come to grips with what happened Monday evening. She said it was difficult to put into words.

"I don't even know what to think," she said. "It's sad, because we have our memories here."

When asked about the possibility of the fire being intentionally set, she said she wants to hear from the experts first.

"I don't know want to say, if it was suspicious or it wasn't suspicious—until the fire marshal comes in," she said.

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