South Bend Tribune, Ind.
Sep. 23—GOSHEN — Smoke from burning debris was still rising into the air Tuesday on Daniel Imhoff’s farm off of County Road 9 as dozens of people hammered new beams onto the roof of Imhoff’s barn.
Imhoff was chipper Tuesday as he directed the workers in fixing his barn and nearby house, but family members said he was forlorn just 24 hours earlier following a Saturday night fire that burned down much of his barn, warped the siding on his house, and killed 30 animals.
“It took three minutes. It was unreal how quick it burned down,” Imhoff said.
Less than four miles down the road to the south, Nelson Martin was also surveying the wreckage of one of his storage buildings.
Martin’s farm, just a few minutes north of Wakarusa, was the first stop for Harrison Township firefighters on Saturday night as they responded to a fire in one of the property’s sheds around 9:30 p.m. before racing to Imhoff’s property shortly before 1 a.m.
The first fire at Martin’s was put out by 4 a.m., but crews were called back to the scene less than an hour later when another of Martin’s storage buildings caught fire.
“It’s hard to process everything in one night,” Martin said. “It’s definitely a financial loss, but I think we’ll survive it.”
As devastating as the fires over the weekend were, they are not uncommon this year as half a dozen barn fires in St. Joseph, Elkhart, and Kosciuszko counties since April are leading farm owners and law enforcement to suspect arson.
“It’s pretty obvious, we suspect foul play,” Martin said.
Two passersby first alerted Martin that his storage building was on fire Saturday night by knocking on his door after 9:30 p.m.
“I’m not sure who they are, but I’m very grateful to them, I’m glad they stopped out of compassion,” Martin said.
As he ran out to his storage barn to move a skid loader, Martin said, he noticed the fire had engulfed the hay in the building, but was not near a tractor that was inside, leading him to believe the flames were not caused by a mechanical spark. And since the building didn’t have any electrical wiring, Martin believes someone intentionally setting it is the only explanation.
Imhoff said he had just finished milking the cows in his barn around 12:45 a.m. Sunday, but ran back out to find flames already spilling out of the roof. Imhoff rushed to move a tractor and to try to save as many animals as possible.
The heat from the fire warped the siding on Imhoff’s house, which is a few hundred feet from the barn, and damaged two large grain silos.
Imhoff said he has “no doubt” the fire on his property was the work of an arsonist, as he knows he bailed the hay correctly to avoid it heating up and was just in the barn minutes before the fire started. The cruelty of such an act struck him.
“An empty barn is one thing,” he said. “But if you want a thrill, don’t burn down animal housing.”
Larry Weaver, a lieutenant with the Harrison Township Fire Department, lives directly across County Road 38 from Martin and was able to mobilize fire crews to the scene quickly.
Crews at Martin’s property were in turn able to quickly respond to Imhoff’s barn when it caught on fire a few hours later.
“It was very fortunate we had stuff freed up like we did and we were able to respond like we did,” Weaver said while thanking crews from Wakarusa and Baugo and Madison townships for their assistance.
Serial arson investigation
Weaver said the cause of the fires is officially undetermined, but said he found “no obvious source” of the fire at Martin’s barn. Weaver has been a firefighter in Harrison Township for a decade and said he hasn’t encountered two major barn fires in the span of a few hours before this year.
“It is very unusual,” Weaver said. “In my nine years prior, I didn’t see this.”
Saturday’s fires are the latest in a string of suspicious barn fires under investigation by law enforcement in Elkhart and Kosciuszko counties.
In April, a nearly 100-year-old barn was destroyed near Milford in Kosciuszko County. In May, officials investigated two fires within a couple of miles of each other just northwest of Wakarusa. Two barn fires in one night a few miles apart in June also drew the attention of Kosciuszko County Sheriff Kyle Dukes, who believes the blazes are connected.
“In my opinion, it’s very suspicious because this isn’t normal,” Dukes said. “I’ve done this law enforcement thing now for 23 years and I’ve never seen this many fires in such a close time frame. It is very suspicious.”
State fire marshals have aided Kosciusko and Elkhart county police in investigating the fires. Dukes said they’ve brought in a suspect for questioning on three separate occasions but were unable to find probable cause to charge the man with a crime.
The Kosciusko County Sheriff’s Department has also increased patrols in the northern part of that county as residents have reported seeing suspicious vehicles shortly before some of the fires began. So far, those patrols have yielded no hard leads.
“We just have not gotten a break,” Dukes said.
The arsonist’s motives aren’t clear, nor is their pattern, though they did seem to slow down in the month of August, Dukes said. The sheriff encouraged residents to call in anything suspicious as police continue to work the case.
“We just need to work together on this and we’ll solve it,” Dukes said.
Capt. Michael Culp with the Elkhart County Police Department declined an interview request, but said police are investigating and will release more information “in the near future.”
With the investigation ongoing, Martin and Imhoff are focused on rebuilding. Both families are part of the same Mennonite church and had extra help putting up new beams on the burned barns and cleaning up debris Tuesday.
“Everything that was burned can be rebuilt,” said Martin, who completely lost a storage unit and all the lumber and hay inside. The second storage building that caught on fire later in the morning was also badly damaged.
Imhoff is especially thankful to the handful of strangers who came out to help him clean up.
“We expect our church to help, what we don’t expect is all the outsiders coming in. It’s amazing to see people who I don’t have a name for coming out here,” he said.
Some of Imhoff‘s neighbors have also started a GoFundMe page to raise money for the family’s repairs. As of Wednesday, the page had raised more than $54,000.
Email Marek Mazurek at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @marek_mazurek
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