Concern Grows Over Vacant Houses Going Up In Flames

By Bonnie Caprara

Review Special Writer

While Detroit firefighters have to struggle with ongoing fires breaking out in vacant commercial buildings, Hamtramck has been spared – so far.

Just recently Detroit firefighters were called once again to put out fires at the defunct Packard plant near Mt. Eliott and I-94 the night of Sunday, June 28, and into the following morning.

While 71, or 12 percent, of Hamtramck’s commercial and industrial buildings stand vacant, Fire Chief Steve Paruk said they pose little risk as fire hazards.

“As long as commercial buildings are secure, we really don’t have problems,” Paruk said.

The last commercial building fire occurred on Dec. 2, 2008, at the block-long A & R Packing plant in the 2200 block of Andrus. The building was operational at the time and has since been boarded up. The owner is in talks with the city about tearing down the remains of the structure.

However, Code Enforcement Manager Tom Lieckfeld said the greatest risk of fire hazards stem from the city’s 109 vacant homes.

“Winter is when we see most of the problems with people trying to stay warm in those buildings,” Lieckfeld said.

Of the 19 fire investigations conducted since the beginning of 2009, five have involved vacant structures, according to Paruk.

Lieckfeld and Paruk said the city routinely secures abandoned buildings. If owners of abandoned buildings cannot be found, the Department of Public Works will board open doors and windows at the city’s expense. In the case of abandoned burned buildings, Paruk said a number of fire restoration contractors will promptly secure them at no cost with the hope that the owners can be located and later billed.

“An unsecured building is an unsafe building,” Paruk said. “It also keeps out scavengers. If you secure an abandoned or foreclosed home, then it’s worth more at resale.”

It’s not just abandoned buildings that pose threats to fire.

“A lot of our homes are old, built in the 1920s,” Lieckfeld said. “They’re brittle and built close together, which poses a hazard to nearby homes.”

“A lot of our commercial buildings are older and aren’t equipped to handle the electrical needs of today,” Paruk said. “Our fire inspector makes routine, unannounced inspections to see how they’re doing business. If he sees extension cords running underneath a rug across the floor, circuits that are overloaded, or things that are improperly stored near a furnace, he’ll have the business owner make the corrections. He’ll even visit homes upon request.”

Paruk also urged residents to call police if they see suspicious people hanging around or entering abandoned homes and buildings.

“It may be a contractor, but it’s better to play it safe,” Paruk said.

One Response to Concern Grows Over Vacant Houses Going Up In Flames

  1. Roger

    July 23, 2009 at 10:28 am

    I lived in detroit for over 2 years and I saw my share of fires, and as most Detroit residents know, a house goes through a distinct blight process when unoccupied:

    1. The day after or that same evening that the house is officially empty of people and locked up, one neighbor and a couple friends show up with a truck and gut the house of copper wire and plumbing and anything of resale value.
    2. Siding, savable doors and any new looking windows disappear within a few weeks.
    3. squatters soon move in, burning trash for heat, sometimes resulting in a fire but mostly not. If this is in winter, pipes freeze without proper heat and may flood the basement with ice cold water. Although the city turned off the water months ago for non payment, theres always a nice neighbor nearby who for $20 will show up one day with a wrench and turn it on for you.
    4. drug dealers move in and displace the bums somewhere else and make it a base of operations for drugs and/or prostitution.
    5. 3-6 police raids later the house is finally abandoned for a while.
    6. 1-2 neighbors sneak in one night and set fire to the house to keep drugs and thugs out of their neighborhood.
    7. Nobody saw anything.

    Now in between these steps, owners may try to board it up again and again and often those $7 plywood boards get stolen too, and heaven help them if they try to renovate over a period of weeks, all those nice cabinets and wiring they put in last week are now gone and that $5 padlock on the front door is mysteriously busted off.

    Please keep in mind i’ve only seen this in Detroit, but from what I hear, similar processes exist in many urban cities with very low income and blight problems.

    This is exactly why cities enforce so many laws regarding rental homes and abandoned homes and why they are trying to keep homes occupied.

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