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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Fire is a particular hazard in vacant buildings, Wichita officials warn

By Stan Finger
The Wichita Eagle

The recent fatal fire in what was supposed to be a vacant house vividly illustrated why this can be a particularly dangerous time of year for fires, officials say.

With temperatures turning sharply colder, homeless residents who shun shelters may be tempted to stay warm and dry in unoccupied buildings. Such structures are also tempting to arsonists, fire Capt. Stuart Bevis said.

“It’s a big concern whenever people get into unsecured structures,” Bevis said. “There’s just a lot of bad situations that can happen.”

Investigators say William K. Wallace, 57, died after a fire started at the house at 1514 S. Mosley on the evening of Nov. 17. Wallace had lived at the house, which had been subdivided into multiple apartments, until the landlord evicted all tenants several months ago and shut off all utilities.

Although a cause of the fire has not been determined, Bevis said, it’s possible someone built a small fire for warmth and it spread out of control. That can happen easily, he said, because the settings aren’t designed to handle what essentially are campfires.

“Something as simple as a candle left unattended” can be dangerous, too, because it can burn down to the point it catches bedding or other combustibles on fire, Bevis said.

There have been 24 fires in vacant buildings so far this year, records show. Fourteen of them are suspected or confirmed arsons, Bevis said.

Fires in vacant buildings account for only 6 percent of structure fires, but 13 percent of all firefighter injuries, statistics from the National Fire Prevention Association show.

Those fires are “a severe hazard” for firefighters because they’re often not up to code or have deteriorated to the point that they can be hazardous to be in particularly if visibility and access routes are limited due to smoke and flames, Bevis said.

“Sometimes it’s vacant for a reason – storm damage or fire damage and the building’s no longer inhabitable,” he said. “If they don’t have a better place to stay, it’s going to be enticing to them.”

Unsecured vacant buildings are supposed to be reported to the city’s office of central inspection, which gives landlords 10 days to two weeks to make repairs or replace damaged doors or windows, said Kurt Schroeder, director of central inspection.

“If they don’t resolve it, we can and often do secure windows and doors that are unsecured,” Schroeder said.

That happens 80 to 100 times a year, he said.

There is no record of violations for the house on South Mosley, Bevis said.

“There were some signs of forced entry” when firefighters arrived at the house, he said.

“Unfortunately, it is quite easy for a determined person to make access to a home if there are not regular occupants to notice” that someone has gained entry, Bevis said.

And that sets the stage for dangerous fires, he said.

Contact Stan Finger at 316-268-6437.

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