Fire Marshall James Barber conducted the investigation.
Huff lost a collection of Texaco signs, three antique boats, and a travel trailer.
photo by Hawes Spencer
It's been a tough time for Alex Toomy. Last year, he moved out of the 7,000-square-foot house he built on 106 acres and lost, via foreclosure, the adjacent Ragged Mountain subdivision he'd developed. Asked by the new owners to clean up the lots in preparation for the spring selling season, he'd been conducting some outdoor brush burns.
Now he stands accused of starting, perhaps accidentally, one of the larger fires in recent history, a multi-day wildfire that scorched 800 acres, consumed a barn, and put as many as 40 houses at risk.
He's living on-site in a tenant house, and the new owners have tapped his ex-wife as listing agent for the now-blackened rolling hills.
"We could easily have another Ragged Mountain fire," said Albemarle Fire Chief Dan Eggleston, in announcing the two misdemeanor charges against Toomy at a Tuesday morning press conference.
If convicted, Toomy faces up to $750 in fines– $500 for breaking the state's springtime ban on pre-4pm burning and $250 for conducting a careless fire.
"I'm delighted that somebody's held responsible," says neighbor Rip Thomsen of the adjacent Colston subdivision. "I can't say that 750 dollars is a major fine. It should be more for that kind of negligence."
The larger issue, some neighbors say, is getting compensation for burned fences, incinerated foliage, and for firefighting expenses from the subdivision's owner, Ragged Mountain Partners LLC, which appears to have authorized the burns. However, one of the company's owners, Chris Sarpy, appeared at the March 1 press conference to tell the Fire Marshal that he didn't think Toomy did anything wrong.
"It started on your property," Fire Marshal James Barber told Sarpy.
"We don't think that was the source of the fire," replied Sarpy. "I talked to Alex last night, and he said he hadn't burned there in about two weeks."
Although Barber and Fire Chief Dan Eggleston declined to release specifics of the investigation, some neighbors believe they know what happened. They contend that the high winds of Saturday, February 19– which reportedly gusted as high as 40 or 50mph– rekindled dormant embers in a hilltop fire pile.
"The winds probably whipped it up and got it burning again," says Bob Huff, who lost three antique boats, a travel trailer, and his priceless collections of license plates and Texaco signs when the flames consumed his mountain-top barn in the adjacent Rosemont subdivision. Between the barn and its contents, Huff says he's out at least $100,000.
Toomy has not returned multiple phone messages. A judge will get the chance to sort things out on March 28.