Originally created 05/06/02

Vacant- building blazes decline



The worst scenario that Lt. G.B. Hannan can imagine during a fire is the loss of property or life.

Fires in vacant structures can cause both, he said.

"Vacant structures are one of the worst enemies of the department," said Lt. Hannan, a fire investigator with the Augusta-Richmond County Fire Department.

These fires can easily injure firefighters and spread to surrounding homes, Lt. Hannan said.

Last year, 36 fires occurred at vacant structures - houses, businesses and abandoned buildings.

"That's the most we've ever had," Lt. Hannan said.

This year, the fire department says, eight or nine vacant buildings have been damaged or destroyed in fires. With summer approaching, Lt. Hannan wants to keep the number of such fires down to a minimum.

He is stressing the importance of preventing fires in abandoned buildings during Arson Awareness Week, which is being observed through Saturday.

Lt. Hannan credits the demolition and preservation done by the Augusta-Richmond County Department of Inspection and the Augusta Neighborhood Improvement Corp. for the decline in blazes so far in 2002.

"They're eliminating these buildings (that could potentially catch fire)," he said.

According to Lt. Hannan, at least 70 percent of all fires in vacant structures in Augusta are labeled as suspicious.

Unoccupied structures are attractive to children, and abandoned property can become a target for vagrants and criminal activity.

"Most of our juvenile arsons come from vacant structures," Lt. Hannan said. "There is also a lot of careless indifference with (homeless) people. "When I go in there I find cigarettes with no ashtrays and drug paraphernalia on the floor."

Drug dealers often use abandoned buildings to distribute narcotics. That can make a building an easy target for arson based on revenge or a means to destroy a dealer's business, Lt. Hannan said.

These fires also pose serious dangers to buildings in the surrounding area. Although vacant-building fires occur throughout Augusta, there is a greater chance for a blaze to spread in the inner city where homes are close together.

A fire in a vacant structure also threatens the firefighters.

"(A fire at a vacant house) can be a deathtrap for a firefighter," said Lt. Hannan, who says that firefighters are three times more likely to be injured while extinguishing a fire at a vacant structure.

"(Firefighters) are working in an unknown (environment)," Lt. Hannan said. "We've found holes located in the walls - which can cause a fire to spread quickly.

"There are also holes in the floor, and stairs are missing. But we still have to fight that fire like any other fire."

On Feb. 25, firefighters Randy Reese and Phillip Turner suffered first-degree burns during a blaze at a vacant house on Twiggs Street.

Mr. Reese was burned on his shoulders, and Mr. Turner on both his ears.

The best defense is public awareness.

"We need the public to report those buildings that need to be boarded up," Lt. Hannan said. "If they respond to the city government, then someone would get something done."

Albert Ross at (706) 823-3339 or albert.ross@augustachronicle.com.