Fires in vacant buildings have become a matter of increasing concern as the economy has weakened, says a recent National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) press release. According to the NFPA’s recently releasedVacant Building Firesreport (PDF, 264 KB, found athttp://www.nfpa.org/assets/files/OS.VacantBuildings.pdf), U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 31,000 structure fires in vacant buildings in 2003-2006. These fires caused an average of 50 civilian deaths and $642 million in direct property damage per year. In addition to 141 civilian injuries, 4,500 firefighters were injured annually at these incidents and accounted for 13 percent of all firefighter injuries incurred at structure fires.
“With the downturn in the economy, the numbers of vacant buildings and vacant building fires have been climbing,” said Marty Ahrens, author of the report. “Often these fires have time to grow before they are discovered and reported. These larger fires can threaten other properties nearby. Because children and youth may use these buildings for hang-outs or risky activities, and the homeless may use them as shelter, firefighters cannot be sure that no one is inside.”
Overall vacant building fires rose 2% from 31,900 in 2005 to 32,700 in 2006. Almost two-thirds (63%) of these fires occurred in homes. According to the Census Bureau, both the number and percentage of housing units that were vacant hit three consecutive 40-year peaks in 2006, 2007 and 2008. The increase in vacant building fires was due largely to an 11% increase in vacant home fires from 18,900 in 2005 to 21,000 in 2006, a much larger increase than the 4% rise in total home fires over the same period. Forty-three percent of vacant building fires were intentionally set. One-quarter of all intentionally set structure fires involved vacant buildings.
Vacant buildings that burned were evenly divided into secured (15,400) and unsecured (15,600). Fire spread was greatest in unsecured vacant building fires. More than half (57%) of the unsecured vacant building fires were intentionally set compared to only 31% of the fires in secured properties. The 2009 edition of NFPA 1,Fire Code requires owners, or those in charge of vacant properties, to remove waste and combustible materials and to secure the building to prevent unauthorized people from entering.