Abandoned buildings attract arsonists in Niagara Falls
Three deliberately set fires strike in a week
(Fire Chief William MacKay stands in front of a newly extinguished house fire in the 500 block of 24th Street. The cause of the blaze was arson.)
NIAGARA FALLS — The smell of smoke still hung in the air, and water had puddled into 24th Street on Thursday as the city fire chief interrupted a scheduled interview to survey the damage from the city’s latest fire.
The cause of the fire in the abandoned duplex in the 500 block of 24th Street was arson.
It was the third deliberately set fire reported in the city this week and a clear reminder that the topic of the interview — National Arson Awareness Week — is more than just a slogan in Niagara Falls.
Chief William MacKay told The Buffalo News that abandoned properties top the list of reasons why arson is such a problem in the city.
About 29 percent of properties in the city are vacant, he estimated.
Last year, city firefighters responded to 200 suspicious fires, many of them involving abandoned and derelict properties.
“Due to the declining population, abandoned buildings become targets of opportunity,” MacKay said.
Before the latest fire, he had stopped to talk to a reporter on 20th street, an area where arson destroyed three buildings and radiant heat damaged nine others last year. MacKay said that fire threatened to destroy the whole block.
MacKay got word about the fire on 24th Street during the interview.
The fire caused heavy damage to the abandoned house.
Next to this newly fire-damaged house was an apartment building that had been damaged by fire. A house once stood across the street, but it was destroyed by fire. Now, the property is a vacant lot.
Josh Deon, 10, lives on 24th Street. At his young age, he said he has seen “something like 19 fires.”
“Oh yes, it’s scary,” he said. “Kids break into the houses and then [the houses] catch on fire. They must hate this street.”
MacKay said such fires endanger both firefighters and those who live in affected neighborhoods. He mentioned Buffalo Firefighter Mark P. Reed, who nearly died battling an arson fire last June.
“There is no doubt that blight in the city can cause a kind of hopelessness, but the new Community Center at 18th and Linwood is an attempt to save that area before it becomes unsalvageable,” the fire chief said.
MacKay said young people breaking into abandoned homes, as well as those who go inside to use drugs, drink or sleep, are part of the problem.
He also said there was a variety of reasons people start fires.
“Some people like to see fires, others want to see what they can get away with, some want to play with matches. There is also arson for profit,” said MacKay.
“The owner is paying taxes on a property and wants to eliminate their tax liability,” he said. “You have people buying houses on the Internet from all over the world. They see that they can purchase a home for one-tenth of what it costs anywhere else, and they take a gamble. Then they find out what they have purchased is worthless.”
MacKay urged people to report suspicious activity.
“Like a man walking with a gas can,” he said. “It might be normal during the day, but no one is getting gas for their lawn-mower at 3 a. m.”
MacKay credited the work of Buildings Commissioner Guy Bax and the city’s Department of Inspections for being very aggressive in removing abandoned, fire-damaged structures so that firefighters won’t have to return to fight another fire in the same building.
But MacKay said these demolitions cost $20,000 to $40,000 each.
“They use community development money,” he said, “but we do try to recoup the costs from the property owner.”