When the former French Bauer Dairy building on North 6th Street was reported to be burning on Sunday night, Hamilton firefighters immediately knew not to go inside to battle the flames.
There was a good reason. Structures like the former dairy building — large, older industrial properties that have fallen into disrepair — are prevalent in former manufacturing strongholds like Hamilton and Middletown and can be dangerous for firefighters to even enter.
Departments inspect properties to update “Do Not Enter” lists to help them know which structures to avoid. In Hamilton, for example, there are 17 such buildings. There are also six “caution” buildings and 27 others that are on the city’s demolition list, some of them already razed, Fire Chief Mark Mercer said.
Costly demolitions, sometimes totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars on larger buildings, can decrease building fires. But while the buildings stand, they remain possibly dangerous adversaries for firefighters.
“Vacant buildings are one of the most dangerous structures to fight a fire in,” said Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lolli.
Lolli’s forces faced some of those dangers last February, when flames were reported at the former Middletown Paperboard facility at 300 S. Verity Parkway, an empty gathering place for teens and others.
The Middletown Arson Task Force has offered a reward up to $5,000 for that fire, which investigators said was an intentional act. Neighbors told this media outlet they noticed a sport utility vehicle near the building at the time.
More than 50 firefighters using 14 fire apparatus battled that fire more than 14 hours in frigid temperatures.
There are several reasons for that, Lolli said, including the ages of the buildings, damage done by weather, vandals and earlier fires. Buildings’ former structural supports may have been removed, and fires can spread more quickly if doors or walls that once would have slowed the spread of fires have been removed, Lolli said.
Meanwhile, Middletown firefighters recently have come across another dangerous situation involving empty buildings: unauthorized haunted houses, which don’t just pop up around Halloween, but at other times, including Christmas and Valentine’s Day, Lolli said.
A key to firefighter safety is knowing as much about buildings as possible before emergencies occur, he and Mercer said.
“We have a list of buildings, and we get them from various places,” Mercer said. “Some of it is things that we see while we’re out doing inspections, and we see a part of a building has floor damage, or something like that.”
With Hamilton’s former dairy building, no utilities are connected, so firefighters knew gas and electric service could not be a cause, and there were no electrical storms in the area that night, so the fire likely was started either on purpose or perhaps by someone trying to keep warm and out of the elements, Mercer said.
Knowing it’s possible someone may be inside, firefighters will carefully look from the outside to see if someone may be in a burning building.
“If somebody shows up at a window, then we’ll go to work toward getting them out, or if the fire’s very light — there’s a little bit of light smoke showing, where there’s good visibility — we can go through the structure and we can assure that the floors are safe, and that our people are safe, we’ll cautiously search that,” Mercer said. “It depends on what the building looks like, what the fire looks like.”
Lolli added: “Just because the building is identified as vacant does not mean that it is unoccupied. Squatters, the homeless and non-licensed businesses may be in the ‘vacant’ structure.”
That’s why cities keep lists of buildings, and many place markers on buildings’ exteriors to warn their safety forces about the dangers.
The number of “Do Not Enter” buildings in Middletown was not immediately available, but Lolli said in 2015 Middletown had about 3,000 vacant residences — some of which have been torn down — and a few dozen vacant commercial or industrial buildings.
Hamilton Deputy Fire Chief Lawrence Gassert performed a study several years ago that examined Hamilton’s building fires each year from 2010-2015 and found a strong correlation between razing vacant structures and drops in numbers of fires in a given area.
Hamilton Building Department Director Ken Rivera said Wednesday that building, health and fire officials were still investigating the condition of the dairy building following the fire.
Mercer said it might cost $400,000 to tear down the three-story concrete-and-brick building and clear the debris. In all three sections of the facility, the roof is gone, and in some areas, brick is collapsing, he said.
When a fire happened in a wooden building on the same property, an out-of-state corporation owned it, and the city was unable to reach the owners. But in the meantime, ownership has passed to the state of Ohio, “so we may be able to find some way to get them to address it.”
Lolli said a related dangerous situation that has happened in Middletown is the popping up of what he calls “‘renegade’ haunted houses.” They happen “not just at Halloween time,” he said.
“We have recently had several individuals attempt to open up haunted houses without the proper certificate of occupancies nor attention to following proper building and fire codes to operate legally,” he said.
“People need to understand that proper license, certificate of occupancies and fire codes have to be followed to operate such business. We don’t want disasters occurring like the Station Night Club fire in Rhode Island in 2003 killing 100 people; nor one like the Oakland, Calif., converted warehouse Ghost Ship (artist collective) killing 36 people (in 2016).
“Situations such as these and vacant structure fires are what keep fire chiefs awake at night.”
Middletown officials have shut down two, including a Christmas haunted house, he said.
“And we’ve received information of a possible Valentine’s Day ‘The End of Love’ haunted house, which we are currently looking into,” he said.
On the positive side, “We’ve had several inquiries from people that once we told them the process, backed off,” Lolli said.