ST. LOUIS • When a vacant home for sale caught fire last month on Taft Avenue, Michael Godwin lost his own home, too.
The side of his house was charred from the fire next door, water flooded his basement, and a chunk of his house was damaged by smoke. Hundreds of pea-sized pieces of glass were strewn across the sidewalk.
He was told he won’t be able to go back to his house for several months, maybe a year. He’ll be in a hotel for a couple of weeks, then an apartment. Two days after the July 25 fire, he was packing the things he couldn’t afford to have stolen, such as his TV and video games, into his car.
The city is trying to figure out why dozens of its 7,000 vacant and abandoned buildings are going up in flames at a frequency not seen in recent years.
From January to the end of July, there have been 148 fires in vacant buildings, according to figures from the St. Louis Fire Department. About 46 percent of structural fires this year have been in vacant buildings, said St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson.
Since November, vacant building fires are “up considerably,” he said, especially in the Benton Park neighborhood.
Fires are burning in the middle of the day and overnight. They’re burning in abandoned buildings and in homes that were unoccupied, but for sale. They’re burning in vacant buildings without electricity.
“Something should be done. Definitely,” Godwin said.
The fire department considers these fires one of its biggest priorities and, along with city police, has dedicated at least a dozen personnel to investigations of the issue. But it has no answers to offer yet.
Meanwhile, residents are nervous for their safety, and saddened at watching parts of neighborhoods they want to see lifted up burned to the ground instead.
“It just brings a lot of shame and hurt. You just walk by and it’s like, wow,” said Danyeah Lucious, 34, who lives near a vacant building on Greer Avenue that caught fire last month, burning two adjacent vacant buildings.
Another vacant building, near Benton Park on Missouri Avenue, was going to be redeveloped before it burned in June.
A developer was going to turn it into a single-family home, and maybe an art studio or an office space, said Alderman Kenneth Ortmann, who’s been outspoken on the issue of vacant building fires. He strongly suspects it was arson.
The building was in an area near Cherokee Street that’s been trying to reverse urban decay.
“We finally got a developer who was going to save the whole thing, that’s the whole positive message,” Ortmann said. “And then some moron’s, some idiot’s got to go in there and start a fire.”
Not only do burned buildings take away housing stock, the fires rack up costs for the city. The city pays about $8,000 to demolish a building, and usually more if it’s burned, because there are fewer recyclable materials that can be salvaged, said Frank Oswald, the city’s building commissioner.
About all the city can do to help prevent these fires is board up vacant buildings and ask neighbors to keep a lookout for suspicious activity, Oswald said. But even so, it’s not hard for somebody to kick in a back door or a board in a window, he said.
Although he can’t say for sure all these fires are an arsonist’s work, Jenkerson says he has good reason to view them as suspicious, based on things investigators learn about the houses, such as if they had no electricity or if there were multiple fires happening in the building at the same time.
Is it a renter getting back at a landlord? Is it disgruntled neighbors? Is it somebody who wants to buy up open lots once the burned buildings are cleared? Or is it just squatters trying to cook a meal? It could be any, all or none of these things, Jenkerson said.
If the fires are the work of an arsonist, it would not be a first for the city.
“Normally, fire and police, we do get to the bottom of it,” he said. “They almost always make a mistake.”