'American Fire' Tells A True Story Of Love And Arson In Rural Virginia

Jul 16, 2017
Originally published on July 31, 2017 3:36 pm

On Nov. 12, 2012, an abandoned house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia burned to the ground. For the next five months, night after night, volunteer fire fighters responded to conflagrations all over the county. Locals started spreading the word: There was an arsonist in Accomack County.

That arsonist turned out to be Charlie Smith, a local and former volunteer firefighter. By the time he was caught, some 86 fires had been set, mostly in abandoned buildings. Smiths' accomplice in the arsons was his girlfriend, Tonya Bundick.

Monica Hesse went to Accomack County to report on the fires for The Washington Post, but while she was there she found a much bigger story. Now Hesse has put that story in a new book called American Fire: Love, Arson, and Life in a Vanishing Land.


Interview Highlights

On what made her want to turn her Washington Post article into a book

The Post article was finished, but the story wasn't finished. When I ended the reporting for the article, it was in the middle of trials; it was like the great courtroom scenes in Law & Order were still happening. And I felt like I had reported half of the story and I wanted to fall down the rabbit hole and find out what happened next. ...

This story had everything. It had 86 fires ... over the course of five months; it had a community that was in a panic; it had the setting of a place that used to be the richest rural county in all of the United States and has now fallen into disrepair, which is the reason they had all of these abandoned buildings to begin with. And then it had a love story. And so you couldn't ask for a more epic human experience than everything that was wrapped up in this story for me.

On what Smith and Bundick's relationship was like

Combustible. You know, that's what first drew me to write the long article that I did to begin with, because when the arsonists were arrested and it was a man and a woman and they were engaged and they were in love — that's really weird. That is not usually what happens in cases of arson, and I wanted to know what had gone wrong in their relationship to change it from this sort of simple, hopeful love story to a night where two folks would get in a minivan, drive around town, stop at Walmart and then go burn down some buildings.

I mean I do feel like Charlie and Tonya's lives, as I try to piece together in the book, 2012 was a year that just fell apart piece by piece for them. It was one thing after another until they somehow had gotten to the point where this seemed like a reasonable solution, to burn the county down. And I think that if any number of those things hadn't gone wrong for them, they probably could have found better outlets. They were victims of their circumstance and products of their circumstance in the same way that we could find a lot of people being products and victims of their circumstance.

On what happened in Accomack County that led to it having so many abandoned buildings

Accomack [County] became really wealthy because the railroad decided to go through there to move Southern produce to Northern cities who wanted that produce. And so for a while you had this rich, fertile farmland and then you had the railway that cut straight through, and people built resort towns and big hotels and then there were these wealthy farmers building these big houses.

And then, you know, trucks came along. People were driving their cars, and if you're driving your cars, you don't go through Accomack [County]. So it wasn't that the county became this desolate place, but it just became a different place, and it became a place that represented what America used to look like and then what a lot of it looks like now.

On how locals responded when they learned the fires were set by one of their own

In a lot of ways, people always assumed it would be one of their own because the idea was this place is in the middle of nowhere; why would an outsider drive here just to burn it down? So I think in some ways it wasn't a surprise that the person lived there. But there still was a sense of, especially among firefighters, "You knew us. You know how hard our job is. You know that all of us are pulling double shifts at the chicken factory, or we're working ourselves to the bone already. Why are you doing this thing that's calling us out of bed every night at 3 a.m. night after night?" So I think there really was a sense of betrayal, and rightfully so.

On how the fires brought the community together

It took me a couple of years to report this. Some people had the advantage of hindsight, so some people were sort of philosophical and sort of circumspect about it. There was one person who I didn't quote in the book, who said to me, "Don't put this in your book, but I kind of miss the arsons because I really felt like my life meant something at that time; because I really felt like I knew what my community needed from me and I could do that in a really tangible way." And so one of the things that I hadn't expected to find was how, while the community was being burned down, the community was also knitting itself together in really close and unexpected and kind of lovely ways, too.

Elizabeth Baker and Stacey Samuel produced and edited this interview for broadcast, and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to a story that's like so many others you've heard, and yet it's like nothing you've heard. It started with an abandoned house on the Eastern Shore of Virginia that burned to the ground. Night after night during that November in 2012, volunteer firefighters would respond to conflagrations all over the county. And locals started spreading the word. There was an arsonist in Accomack County. By the time the arsonist was caught, some 86 fires had been set. Some 68 buildings had burned to the ground.

Monica Hesse went out to report on the fires for The Washington Post, but she found a much bigger story about the hollowing out of what used to be the heartland. She's captured all this in a new book just out called "American Fire: Love, Arson, And Life In A Vanishing Land." Monica Hesse is with us now in our Washington, D.C., studios. Welcome. Thank you so much for coming.

MONICA HESSE: Oh, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So when in your reporting did you realize that this was going to be more than a Post article about a crime spree?

HESSE: The Post article was finished, but the story wasn't finished. When I ended the reporting for the article, it was in the middle of trials. It was like the great courtroom scenes in "Law & Order" were still happening. And I felt like I had reported half of the story. And I wanted to fall down the rabbit hole and find out what happened next.

MARTIN: What do you think it was that grabbed you that wouldn't let you go?

HESSE: Oh, my gosh, because this story had everything. It had 86 fires that burned buildings down over the course of five months. It had a community that was in a panic. It had the setting of the place that used to be the richest rural county in all of the United States and has now fallen into disrepair, which is the reason they had all of these abandoned buildings to begin with. And then it had a love story. And so you couldn't ask for a more epic human experience than everything that was wrapped up in this story for me.

MARTIN: Very early on in the book, as the first fire rages, you tell us who set the fire. It was a guy named Charlie Smith. So before we dig into all of that, why don't you read a little bit of the preface? And start with the paragraph that says, I spent the next two years.

HESSE: Oh, sure. (Reading) I spent the next two years trying to understand why he did it. The answer in as much as there is an answer for these kinds of things involved hope, poverty, pride, Walmart, erectile dysfunction, Steak-umms - the chopped meat sold in the frozen foods aisle - intrigue and America. America - the way it's disappointing sometimes, the way it's never what it used to be. But it also involved love.

MARTIN: Well, why don't we talk about those two things separately? Let's talk about the love part. And then I do want to hear about the America part and the fact that it's disappointing sometimes. So the love part, it turns out that Charlie Smith had an accomplice, at least according to the court - what happened in court. It was his girlfriend. Their relationship was really - I don't know how. How would you describe it, the motivating factor in all of this?

HESSE: Combustible. You know, that's what first drew me to write the long article that I did to begin with because when the arsonists were arrested, and it was a man and a woman, and they were engaged and they were in love, that's really weird. That is not usually what happens in cases of arson. And I wanted to know what had gone wrong in their relationship to change it from this sort of simple, hopeful love story to a night where two folks would get in a minivan, drive around town, stop at Walmart and then go burn down some buildings.

I mean, I do feel like Charlie and Tonya's lives, as I try to piece together in the book, 2012 was a year that just fell apart piece by piece for them. It was one thing after another until they somehow had gotten to the point where this seemed like a reasonable solution - to burn the county down. And I think that if any number of those things hadn't gone wrong for them, they probably could have found better outlets. They were victims of their circumstance and products of their circumstance in the same way that we could find a lot of people being products and victims of their circumstance.

MARTIN: Well, you know, and that goes to the second part of the story as you were telling us the sort of disappointment or that sense of loss that infuses this whole story. We learn in the book that this used to be the richest county in America. What happened? How did that happen? And how did it become so not that?

HESSE: It changed in the way that a lot of America changed. Accomack became really wealthy because the railroad decided to go through there, to move southern produce to northern cities who wanted that produce. And so for a while, you had this rich fertile farmland. And then you had the railway that cut straight through. And people built resort towns and big hotels. And then there were these wealthy farmers building these big houses. And then, you know, trucks came along. People were driving their cars.

And if you - if you're driving your cars, you don't go through Accomack. So it wasn't that the county became this desolate place, but it just became a different place. And it became a place that represented what America used to look like and then what a lot of it looks like now.

MARTIN: Once people figured out that it was one of their own who had done this, I mean, somebody that they had grown up with...

HESSE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...People that had grown - who had been a volunteer firefighter of all things, you know, how did that sit with them? I mean, how did they process that?

HESSE: You know, it's funny because in a lot of ways, people always assumed it would be one of their own because this place is in the middle of nowhere. Why would an outsider go - why would an outsider drive here just to burn it down? And so I think in some ways, it wasn't a surprise that the person lived there, but there still was a sense of - especially among firefighters - you knew us. You know how hard our job is. You know that all of us are pulling double shifts at the chicken factory, or we're working ourselves to the bone already. Why are you doing this thing that's calling us out of bed every night at 3 a.m. night after night?

So I think there really was a sense of betrayal and, you know, rightfully so. I did talk to - because it took me a couple of years to report this, some people had the advantage of hindsight. So some people were sort of philosophical and sort of circumspect about it. There was one person who I didn't quote in the book who said to me, don't put this in your book, but I kind of missed the arsons because I really felt like my life meant something at that time. Because I really felt like I knew what my community needed from me, and I could do that in a really tangible way. And so one of the things that I hadn't expected to find was how while the community was being burned down, the community was also knitting itself together in really close and unexpected and kind of lovely ways, too.

MARTIN: That's Washington Post reporter Monica Hesse. Her new book is called "American Fire: Love, Arson, And Life In A Vanishing Land." She was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Monica Hesse, thanks so much for speaking with.

HESSE: Oh, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.