Carroll County farmers on alert after barn fires Some stand guard as arsons increase in past 2 months

November 07, 1998|By Anne Haddad and Mike Farabaugh | Anne Haddad and Mike Farabaugh,SUN STAFF

The ground on Bill Hipp's property near Manchester still smells like smoke nearly two weeks after the historic barn that had stood there for 104 years was burned to the ground by an arsonist.

Hipp's post-and-beam barn was destroyed in the latest of 11 barn arsons in northern Carroll County that has some farmers armed and standing guard all night.

The arsons seem to have started one year ago but have become more frequent in the past two months. Since Sept. 5, four barns a few miles apart have been set on fire during the night. The most recent was Hipp's on Oct. 27.

Robert B. Thomas Jr., deputy chief state fire marshal, said the arsons are related. Arsons of all types increased last month in the region that includes Carroll, Frederick and Howard counties. Thomas said his office picked up 18 cases last month, triple the average.

Hipp was in a front-loader Thursday, digging the foundation of the barn he plans to build. But the new one will look more like a garage, he said.

"We had insurance, but it wasn't nearly enough to put back the barn that was here," Hipp said. A new one would cost him more than $100,000.

"It was one of the old post-and-beam barns. There's not a lot of people left to do it anymore," Hipp said.

One of Hipp's neighbors has his own insurance plan: He sleeps outside in his truck at night with a 16-gauge shotgun and a dog. He has done so for seven weeks.

The farmer asked that his name not be used to avoid being the arsonist's next target. He said a neighbor is also armed and standing guard at night.

Thomas recalled that about 10 years ago, farmers in Whiteford and Darlington in northern Harford County took up arms to defend their properties against a serial arsonist.

"That's a real concern in Carroll right now, and solving the barn arsons is a top priority," Thomas said. He said many farmers are underinsured, making the loss of a barn more of a hardship.

Some of the barns that burned down were built before the turn of the century and had historical significance within the community, Thomas said.

"Arsonists don't care about their target," he said. "Last week, a $100,000 barn built in the 1890s was destroyed within two hours," he said, referring to Hipp's barn.

Hipp said he arrived at home at 7: 10 that night and parked the car facing the barn. Everything appeared normal, he said. He had just sat down in front of the television with his dinner when a passer-by knocked on his door to say the barn was on fire. It was 7: 20 p.m.

"If the fire department had been here already, they couldn't have done anything," Hipp said. With old, dry wood, 1,000 bales of hay and straw, the barn went up in seconds.

Seven horses that belong to Hipp's fiancee were not inside the barn. They were in a field next to it.

Lt. Leonard M. Armstrong, commander of the Westminster barracks of the Maryland State Police, confirmed that troopers on patrol are aware of the large number of arsons in the Lineboro, Manchester and Hampstead areas.

Armstrong said troopers have not reported contact with armed property owners but that he was told by a caller from Millers Monday that property owners armed with shotguns or rifles have begun standing guard at night.

"Arming yourself and guarding your barn is not the way to handle this problem," he said. "Someone is going to get hurt or arrested."

The law allows citizens to use deadly force only if their lives are in danger.

"We would have to examine the facts of each case on their own merits," said Jerry F. Barnes, the state's attorney for Carroll County and an advocate of Second Amendment rights. "The basic premise, however, is that deadly force is not available for the mere protection of personal property."

Donald T. Folk, owner of Charles H. Folk & Son feed store in Lineboro, hopes the lighting on his property will deter any arsonist.

Bright overhead lights illuminate his store, grain storage bins, barn, a stone farmhouse built in the late 18th century and the newer ranch-style house where he lives.

He shook his head in disgust over one of the most recent fires. A barn on Maple Grove Road that burned Sept. 5 belonged to a woman who had just died. Folk was at the funeral home to pay his respects to the family of Ruth Murray that day. The next day he heard her barn had burned down.

"That was a disgrace," Folk said. "The night she was laying in her coffin, they burned the barn."

The arson hit home for Folk.

"When I heard that, I called up my insurance man and doubled my insurance."

Pub Date: 11/07/98

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