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5 Firefighters Charged With ‘Make-Work’ Arson : South Carolina: Authorities say up to 150 blazes were set from 1991 to 1993 to provide practice putting them out. Only vacant buildings or land was affected.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

There was something that bothered Vincent Sherbert about five fellow firefighters in this mill town.

“Sometimes when we’d get an alarm at midnight, they would be at the station,” Sherbert, now the department’s chief, recalled. And that was unusual for men who lived as much as 20 minutes away.

Those five firefighters are now charged with setting an undetermined number of about 150 suspicious fires that scarred this community, where about 670 people live on or near two half-mile-long, potholed rural roads.

The arson was believed to be motivated not by profit but by a desire to practice fighting fires, said Hugh Munn, a spokesman for the State Law Enforcement Division.

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But the town isn’t exactly up in arms. The fires from 1991 to 1993 affected only vacant buildings or land and caused no injuries. In fact, there is almost a sense of relief that some rundown buildings are gone.

In a community with many retirees, residents said the buildings attracted drug users from the surrounding rural area near Spartanburg.

“They were eyesores,” said Chad Lister, who owns a produce market, one of the few businesses in a no-stoplight town built around a cotton fabric mill. “If I was on the jury, I wouldn’t convict them.”

The suspects are free on bail. Efforts to find their telephone numbers or lawyers for comment were unsuccessful.

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The five firefighters--two of them former chiefs and one a former captain--have left the Arkwright Volunteer Fire Department. Also charged is a member of the three-member board that oversees the 17-member department.

The State Law Enforcement Division, which brought the criminal charges last month, said more people may be charged. Munn could not say how many fires the current charges involve or what the possible penalty is.

Sherbert, a 15-year department veteran, recently recalled how the suspects often seemed to work on their own. “We would fight fires with these guys, and they acted like they didn’t even know we were there,” he said.

There were at least 40 arrests of firefighters for arson in South Carolina last year. In law enforcement, firefighters gone bad are known as “strikers.”

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“This is not an uncommon thing across the country,” said Sharon Cooper, executive director of the South Carolina Insurance News Service. “Sometimes there is a tendency . . . that they get the bug to set one so they can go ahead and put it out.”

The National Volunteer Fire Council said in August, 1994, that it had no exact national figures on the number of firefighters convicted of arson.

In an FBI study of 25 cases of firefighter arson in seven states and a Canadian province, 66 men were found responsible for 182 fires.

According to the FBI, the top motive was the excitement, particularly among young firefighters who want to put their training to work and be seen as heroes. Some firefighters did it for extra pay.

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