It’s a sense of having already lived through something.
Chris Johnson knows that feeling all too well, especially after spotting the Carrollton Covered Bridge ablaze and not being able to stop its destruction.
A little more than a year ago, fire destroyed a building at his Barbour County home.
“In this case, I just don’t understand why anyone would want to do something like that to something that’s so old, beautiful and loved by local people,” he said.
Originally built in 1856, the Carrollton Covered Bridge over the Buckhannon River was the second longest and third oldest surviving covered bridge in West Virginia.
It underwent repairs in 1978, and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in June 1981.
“Sometimes when I would sit on my front porch, I would smile because from there you had such a good view of the covered bridge. And that was enough to make me realize how lucky I am,” he said.
Investigators now have an answer, and the West Virginia Fire Marshal’s Offices ruled that arson is to blame.
Someone deliberately set fire to the 161-year-old wooden span late Thursday night. The first call reporting the fire was received at the county 911 center at 11:10 p.m.
But that’s not the only news.
State officials also say fires were intentionally set at two small campsites near the bridge.
Investigators believe the fire at the bridge and the campsites are related, the Associated Press reported Saturday night.
No arrests have yet been made in the case which has received attention from county and state officials, as well as the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
“It’s just an unusual fire, and scenes of that size take manpower,” said DeWayne Haddix, resident agent in charge for ATF’s Clarksburg field office.
A team of special agents were sent Friday to help law enforcement and fire officials conduct an investigation into the blaze.
“Several of us were familiar with that landmark, and it is very unfortunate for people in that community to lose something of that significance,” Haddix said.
Johnson said he was reassured by the ATF’s presence because he was already familiar with several fires in his rural community even before the local landmark caught on fire. He lives a little less than a mile off U.S. Route 119 between Philippi and Buckhannon.
There have been at least six in the last year within about a five-mile radius, including three or four in June, one a week ago, and two Thursday night, he said.
One was on his own property, a June 2016 fire that was ruled accidental.
The day before Father’s Day, a house that he and his parents used primarily for storage burned down. Flames destroyed many personal items that had belonged to his late sister before she died of leukemia in 1990.
“Around that time there were also two or three more camps down this (Buckhannon) river road that were burned down,” he said.
He wondered (and worried) about the other earlier blazes, but didn’t hear about any official investigations into them.
“In our case the fire marshal said it was an accident. But the one thing that has always kind of bothered us is that off to the side of it there were two, maybe three, unopened beer bottles on the ground,” he said.
“Where we live a lot of people do throw out their trash, but I’ve never known anyone to throw out full beer bottles. And it was up high enough like someone had maybe been around.”
Deja vu. Again.
“You know, we were like he determined it was electrical. Now all these other (fires) started back up again, and it makes you wonder.”
Thursday night, Johnson and his family were again close to the action that claimed a structure.
A normally quiet area, Johnson said he’d gone to check what was happening after hearing a noise outside.
“We heard a vehicle, and it seemed like it had stopped. So we just kind of opened the door to see, and at the same time my daughter got a text from a friend saying they’d heard on the scanner that the bridge was on fire,” he said.
Walking outside they saw fire at the top of the bridge, and Johnson called to report the blaze slightly after 11:30 p.m.
Firefighters had already been notified and arrived within minutes, but the structure was engulfed in flames by then, he said.
It was yet another, uneasy reminder.
“There have been some suspicious things going on, including another fire at a camp about a mile down the road. One of the officers said he could smell what was probably used like an accelerant, something like old gas,” he said.
“And then it was just a week ago another big camp a couple of miles down the road was burned.”
Barbour County 911 Director Ron Skidmore confirmed Friday there had been other fires in this same general area.
“Last year, but this is the first ones this year. Last year there was a string of fires including an outbuilding camp that was actually pretty much the same area as the one that burnt up last night,” Skidmore said.
“There were three buildings on that camp. One burnt last year around April 2016, then they burnt a couple of mailboxes and stuff down on Buckhannon River Road. And then off of Hall Road, they had some other mailboxes that burnt.”
“They had a fire that was in Upshur county across the Barbour County line that also burnt a camp, I believe, around the same time around April of last year.”
Although he didn’t refer to the Johnson property by name, Skidmore confirmed there had been a fire in a vacant structure.
“There was an abandoned house right at the corner of the intersection with the bridge that burnt last year. It wasn’t within the same time of those other fires, but it was within a couple of months.”
He also confirmed the camp that burned Thursday night was on Buckhannon River Road.
Skidmore said his agency’s job is to take emergency calls.
“I can’t speak to whether it is connected or not. That would be a question for whoever is doing the investigation which is the West Virginia State Fire Marshal office,” he said.
“I can only assume the same thing you are assuming. There have been fires down there in relatively the same type of area over a different period of time.”
Several volunteer fire departments from Barbour, Upshur, Randolph and Harrison counties responded to the call. According to 911 records, the fire was pretty much extinguished by 12:50 a.m.
State Department of Highways engineers were on the scene Friday morning examining the remains. Since then Transportation Secretary Tom Smith expressed support for making repairs needed to reopen it.
DOH spokesperson Carrie Jones said approximately $389,000 worth of work had been done to the now-closed bridge in 2002.
Initial, post-fire inspections indicated that “it was mostly the covered bridge part that was significantly damaged. So getting rid of that, and opening up the bridge would be our first concern.”
Eventually historic preservation work may be done there, but “it’s too early to say how and who would do that,” she said.