16 News Now Investigates: Who’s Burning Our Barns?

Published: Nov. 18, 2021 at 6:30 PM EST
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(WNDU) - A string of barn fires is impacting the farming community in Michiana.

As arsons now span four counties, we’re taking a closer look at the financial impacts of the blazes while police and the community search for the person behind the destruction.

In July, 16 News Now Investigates looked into seven barns that went up in flames across three counties this spring. Those were deemed suspicious, with the State Fire Marshal’s Office investigating.

Months later, at least a dozen barns have now been burned, all being investigated as arson, but still without any answers.

Farmers are again on edge as seven more barns have been leveled in a month’s time. Two barns were burned in Marshall County in the area of Beech and Tyler roads on September 9.

On September 18, overnight fires claimed three barns. Two of those happened at the 2500 block of C.R. 38 near Goshen. Another happened at the 62000 block of C.R. 9 near Wakarusa, marking a dangerous change in the apparent pattern of these fires. A GoFundMe page for the barn’s owners says several animals were killed in the blaze.

Both families told 16 News Now they don’t think the fires were accidental.

“There was no activity as far as on my part of anything. No bonfires close… So, I guess, everybody’s got to make their own guess but it almost appears like there’s been foul play involved,” explained Nelson Martin.

Then on October 1, the barn burnings continued near Syracuse. First at the 72000 block of C.R. 43, then at the 13000 block of C.R. 48.

The blazes left behind just charred remains of two barns in Elkhart County right in the middle of harvest season in the Hoosier state.

Propetty owner Garry Weybright was aware of the string of arsons before his barn was burned to the ground.

“I knew that there were other barn fires happening all summer. And I knew that we were vulnerable, we sit close to the road, the house is over here, they have access to the backside of the barn behind the silo there that we wouldn’t see them,” he explains.

He even saw the blaze on C.R. 43 on his way home that night.

“I saw that barn burning, and I recognized what barn it was, it was that barn on the east side of the road, Bobeck’s barn… and I said well they’ve got another barn tonight dear.”

Both barns hit that night had been standing for over 100 years and had been awarded the Centennial Farm Award in 2009.

Fire departments across Michiana are urging everyone to keep a watchful eye and report any suspicious people or vehicles they may see near area barns.

Jeff Burbrink with Purdue extension Elkhart County tells us the farming community is unnerved and standing guard.

“We’ve heard of people sleeping in their barns. I’ve heard people that maybe are keeping a firearm close by. We’re telling people if you do run across some suspicious things, call 911 first, gather what information you can and get that to the Sheriff’s Department,” he tells us.

The Elkhart County Sheriff’s Office is asking for the public’s help investigating eight barn fires in the county dating back to April.

Even the Farm Bureau is getting involved, offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. Elkhart, Kosciusko, St. Joseph, and Marshall counties are all contributing to the fund.

For the families impacted by these arsons, it’s not just memories up in smoke. It’s also affecting their bottom line. Burbrink estimates the cost of losing a barn to be well over $150,000.

These losses can really pull on the purse strings for our local farmers.

“Let’s just take, hay, for instance. If you had an average size barn you might have quite a few tons of hay in there. Maybe 500 tons of hay. And that, you’re looking at $10,000 worth of hay right there,” explains Bubrink. “By the time you take the lumbar to rebuild, which is very expensive right now because of all the shortages, and all the building supplies. Then any equipment, if you had any tractors or maybe they farm with horses, any equipment like that would be damaged and may be unusable again.”

Burbrink tells us the impact for the Amish and Old Order Mennonite communities could be even greater.

“A lot of times those communities have a pool that they use for disasters like that. And, you know, it occurs over and over again within that church district, then it can strain that church district quite often, he says. “It’s not that they’re without help, but it strains everybody’s pocketbook because everybody chips in.”

While the farming community stands together against these arsons, working to rebuild, the emotional cost continues to add up.

“My granddaughters in California, they call and they ball. It’s like losing his spirit,” explains Garry Weybright, whose barn burned down in October. “I can walk around that barn and still see dad walking out. It’s just crazy, it’s insane, it’s inhuman.”

If you have any information on these fires, you can call the state of Indiana’s Arson Hotline at 800-669-7362. You can also email the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Office tip line at ECSDTipLine@elkhartcountysheriff.com.

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