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Vacant buildings feeding spread of arson
By Brian Meyer NEWS STAFF REPORTER
Updated: 03/06/07 6:08 AM
Empty buildings are compounding Buffalo’s arson problems, especially in the Fillmore District, which logged more than five times as many fires in vacant structures last year than most other neighborhoods.
The number of suspicious fires increased by 25 percent last year throughout the city and spread into some neighborhoods that have not generally been victimized by firebugs.
The large number of vacant buildings has intensified the arson problem, concludes a report released by CitiStat, Buffalo’s accountability panel. Nearly one in five residential structures in Buffalo is vacant, according to Fire Commissioner Michael S. Lombardo. In the past 13 months, more than 40 percent of all structural fires have occurred in empty buildings, he estimated.
“I would say 90 percent of all fires [in vacant buildings] are suspicious,” Lombardo said Monday. Vacant structures that are inadequately secured have been the biggest problems, accounting for nearly 60 percent of all blazes in abandoned buildings. Structures that were properly boarded up had far fewer fires.
Mayor Byron W. Brown said crews have been developing more effective techniques to prevent intruders from gaining access to structures.
There are an estimated 10,000 vacant buildings in the city, and tearing them down is expensive. The average demolition costs about $10,000, so the city has been struggling to solve a $100 million problem in phases. It has earmarked more money for demolitions in recent years, and it’s seeking millions of dollars in additional state aid for the effort.
While fires in vacant buildings occurred in each of the nine Common Council districts over the past year, the Fillmore District has been hardest hit. Lombardo said nearly half of all fires in abandoned structures occurred in Fillmore, compared with just under 16 percent in Niagara and about 11 percent in Masten. The other six Council districts had far fewer fires in empty buildings.
“Now you know why I’ve been pushing so hard for demolitions,” said Common Council President David A. Franczyk, who has represented the Fillmore District for most of the last two decades.
As the district’s aging population moved or died in the 1980s and 1990s, the number of vacant properties skyrocketed, Franczyk said.
“You had a ferociously high concentration of absentee landlords,” he said. “They milked those properties like lemons, then abandoned them.”
Lombardo said fire investigators are also concerned about spikes in arsons in some West Side neighborhoods and in some pockets of the North District.
Fighting arsons takes a bite out of the Fire Department budget, Lombardo said. The average cost to respond to a call is $1,408, although the figure can be significantly higher.
For example, the city spent tens of thousands of dollars battling a Feb. 24 arson that destroyed a three-story vacant warehouse on Metcalfe Street in the Clinton-Fillmore area. Tearing down the structure will likely cost at least $200,000. While officials said they hope to recover demolition expenses from the building’s owner, the city has had problems collecting such debts from other owners in the past.
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Photos by Angel Art LTP, compliments of the Greater Buffalo Convention and Visitors Bureau. Additional photos by Adrian Roselli, compliments of Algonquin Studios