Fire roars in vacant East Albany home

Photo by Pete Skiba

Photo by Pete Skiba

ALBANY, Ga. -- A fire that spread through an abandoned house in East Albany was arson, Albany Fire Department officials say.

"This fire was intentionally set," Sam Harris, fire investigator, said Tuesday as he pointed to a heavily charred living room wall and floor. "There was a perfectly good fireplace over there for cooking. It even has wood in it."

The fire that ripped though the brick home at 209 Delta St. at 3 p.m. Monday was set by homeless squatters, Harris said. He added that if 2009 is any indication, firefighters face another winter responding to many fires started in vacant or abandoned buildings by homeless intruders.

At least four dispossessed people had taken up residence in the two-story house, Harris said. More had found a place to sleep in a crawlspace under the building.

"The first thing we did was check out if anyone was in the house or in the crawlspace," Harris said. "Human life is our first responsibility. That is what worries me the most. If these fires continue, someone could die."

To help avoid fires and any possible fatalities, Harris said that people should report anyone they see in or around vacant or abandoned buildings to the Albany Code Enforcement Department, the Albany Police Department or the fire department.

Fire Chief James Carswell said the problem is compounded when homeless people take over a location as a group. As more abandoned houses are leveled by the city's Code Enforcement Department, fewer homes are available for squatters.

"They tend to group up in homes," Carswell said. "The more people you have in a property, the more likely fires will occur."

The number of abandoned homes in the city was not immediately available, said Mike Tilson, code enforcement director.

An e-mail, Tilson said the city has 164 dilapidated structure cases. Of those, 22 have been put out for bid for contractors to demolish, two are being demolished by their owners and one is being repaired.

"We have orders for demolition or repair on another 22, which are in their 'wait period' to see if the owner will do something (if the owner does not, we demolish)," Tilson wrote. "The rest are in different stages, including asbestos survey or abatement, being monitored by the court."

Housing and other services for homeless people are sorely lacking in the city, said David Blackwell of the Albany Homeless Coalition.

"The Salvation Army served 32,000 meals last year. That should give you an idea of how big the problems in the city are," Blackwell said. "We just don't have enough emergency shelters for the homeless."