Fires at vacant buildings on rise in Hamilton

Hamilton firefighters have responded to 21 fires at vacant buildings in the city so far this year — including two over the weekend — which is just six fewer than for all of 2012, according to fire department records.

Fires in vacant or abandoned buildings have been a matter of increasing concern for city officials as the economy has struggled. Some areas of the city have been plagued by homeless individuals or drug users squatting at vacant homes and inadvertently starting fires, fire officials said.

Twenty-seven of the 103 structure fire calls in 2012, or roughly 26 percent, were to vacant buildings, according to fire records. That’s nearly four times the national average.

According to the U.S. Fire Administration, 7 percent of all residential building fires nationwide are at vacant structures. The federal agency estimated there is an average of 28,000 vacant residential building fires reported by U.S. fire departments each year. These fires account for an average of 45 deaths, 225 injuries and $900 million in property losses annually.

Roughly 37 percent of all vacant structure fires reported are intentionally set, according to the USFA.

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Hamilton Fire Investigator Tom Angst said Monday that both fires — at 507 S. Martin Luther King Boulevard on Friday night and early Sunday morning at 431 Charles St. — are suspicious. The Martin Luther King property, a three-unit apartment building, was also damaged by fire in October and had been boarded up for months.

“They were vacant homes with no utilities, so there had to be some type of human interaction,” Angst said. “Usually when we run into something like that, it is people lighting a fire to keep warm. I don’t think that was needed over the weekend.”

Both buildings are owned by Stanley D. Gregg, according to the Butler County Auditor’s Office. Angst said the owner did not have insurance on the Martin Luther King property, and he suspects the same of the building on Charles Street.

Damage estimate for the Friday night fire is $40,000 and $15,000 for the Sunday morning fire.

Gregg could not be reached for comment Monday.

The city has been trying to battle this problem in the past year through the Butler County Land Bank program. With the help of more than $1 million in state and federal funding, Hamilton has acquired more than 100 parcels of land — some of which contained foreclosed properties that have been vacant for some time and have been the source of fires, crime and other neighborhood nuisances — for the purpose of bulldozing them.

Deputy City Manager Hillary Stevenson said the city also tries to use its nuisance abatement program to address eyesores and vacant, dilapidated properties.

Fires at vacant structures can be more dangerous because they are often dilapidated and unstable inside, Stevenson said.

“Anytime there are abandoned properties, residents and first responders are subject to some risk,” she said, noting there is also risk to adjacent homes.

Those with information about either of this past weekend’s fires are asked to call Angst at 513-785-7500.

Staff Writer Ed Richter contributed to this report.

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