Shame spreads across county like a wildfire

The news spreading about Robeson County on Tuesday that was like — forgive us — a wildfire was again not good, but this time it went far beyond the county line, Southeastern North Carolina, the state, and made national headlines.

Ten firefighters, the headlines screamed, from two volunteer departments in Robeson County had been accused of arson, having set ablaze abandoned structures and woods for a period of about two years. More arrests are expected, according to Sheriff Kenneth Sealey, so a big story will become even bigger.

Sealey estimated that the damage had cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars, and also pointed out that when emergency personnel are dispatched to a fire, the urgency in getting them there quickly puts them, and others, in danger.

Anytime we hear of an abandoned structure catching on fire, we immediately suspect a firefighter. This has happened more than once in Robeson County, and it isn’t unique to us. Firefighters tend to be adrenaline junkies, and if there isn’t a fire to fight, there are some — and we believe the percentage is modest — willing to create their own blaze.

But we were surprised and saddened to learn how many firefighters were allegedly involved, and worry about how many more will be arrested and charged.

Sealey wasn’t speculating on a motive, but we don’t mind. Although the firefighters are volunteers, they often are paid a small stipend when they fight a fire, but we don’t see this as the motivating force. We believe that the primary motivator is the adrenaline rush we spoke about. For some, it’s probably fun. Put out a fire heading toward property or people, and you attain hero status for the day.

Unless, of course, you started that fire, and that is revealed. Then your mug shot is on the front of the local newspaper.

We were also struck by the ages of the volunteers: Seven of the 10 charged were in their teens, and we all know that young people tend to make decisions that aren’t well-considered and carry severe consequences.

In this instance 10 people, should they in fact be determined to be guilty of some if not all the crimes with which they have been charged, have severely damaged their reputations and made their lives more difficult, not only in the short term, but far down the road. One, a Maxton police officer for just a few months, has already lost his job, and we doubt that his career will be in law enforcement.

Unfortunately, the allegations have tarnished not only the affected departments, Orrum and Fairmont Rural, but all the volunteer firefighting departments across the county. A cloud will hover over these departments until the investigation has ended, and that is publicly shared.

So now is a good time to remember what these volunteer firefighters do — and that is to give selflessly of themselves, not only when they risk their lives on any day and at any hour to fight fires, but in the incredible amount of time that they spend training in preparation of that task.

In each batch of anything, there will be the bad apples. It was good work by our local law enforcement to find these hot spots and to stamp them out before they caused more harm, including the possibility that someone is injured or killed.