The buildings began to burn 2 1/2 years ago.

Usually ramshackle and unoccupied, a house or shack burned every few weeks. Sometimes volunteers from the fire department came to douse the flames, sometimes they didn't.The house at 3937 Tudor Ave. was just another broken-down hut, but when it burned April 1, its embers ignited the house next door. That left a family homeless, and a volunteer firefighter nearly smothered from smoke inhalation.

It also cinched an investigation that police Chief Curtis McCall says exposed the biggest open secret in town: Firefighters have been burning the city down.

Two volunteer firefighters were charged with arson April 11 and remain in jail. McCall said officials are closely watching several other volunteers still on the job.

"They liked showing up to put out fires. Hero mentality," McCall said.

"It's a symptom of sin, that's what it is," said Mary Cook, whose home burned in the April 1 fire - one of nearly 50 since 1996.

Officials on the board and with the fire district refused to comment Tuesday.

Fire protection in Centreville, a threadbare town of 8,000 on the edge of East St. Louis, and in surrounding communities has been the subject of acrimonious fights for nearly three years.

Arguments between the fire board and former Fire Chief Mark Jackson turned into shouting matches. The board accused him of stealing its financial books, then dismissed him in November 1996. More than half of the then-27 member volunteer department left with him.

A department-owned car that had been assigned to Jackson burned in a suspicious fire a few days after he was dismissed.

As the controversy continued, many firefighters refused to respond to fire calls. The home belonging to McCall's parents burned to the ground in January 1997 when only one firefighter - from another department - answered the call. He couldn't get the water pump going. No one was hurt.

McCall isn't blaming the fires on the dispute between the board and the former chief. He said the arrests so far account for at least 16 fires.