National Arson Awareness Week May 6-12, 2018

Reducing arson at vacant and abandoned buildings

Each year for Arson Awareness Week (AAW), the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) gathers and shares information to raise awareness of arson or youth firesetting and provide to individuals with strategies to combat these problems in their community.


This year’s National Arson Awareness Week theme is “Reducing Arson at Vacant and Abandoned Buildings.”

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Issue a resolution PDF 20 KB or proclamation PDF 16 KB to declare your community’s commitment to preventing arson in vacant and abandoned buildings.

More about this year’s theme +-

This year’s materials for abandoned and vacant buildings will:

  • Highlight basic evaluation procedures.
  • Provide recommendations to help communities deal with issues surrounding these buildings.
  • Spotlight training available to fire investigators.
  • Explain the advantages of clear boarding, an alternative to plywood for boarding up empty properties.

Unsecured and exposed to the elements, abandoned and vacant structures can be extremely treacherous to firefighters, as they lack structural integrity and may contain other hazards. Urban mining removes pipes and wiring, resulting in additional pathways for the spread of smoke and fire.

The best method to keep firefighters safe is to aggressively identify, evaluate and secure vacant and abandoned buildings. In addition, jurisdictions should adopt a policy which limits interior fire attack to incidents where there is a confirmed life hazard.

Abandoned and vacant structures continue to be a nuisance in urban areas across America. Urban sprawl is transferring populations from cities to more rural areas, leaving a wake of vacant and eventually abandoned factories, offices and residential structures. Buildings and homes can become vacant or abandoned for a multitude of reasons, including destroyed in a disaster, foreclosure, failed business, or disinvestment by the owners. Unfortunately, these structures attract illicit activity, such as drug use, vandals and prostitution.

Urban blight results in a vicious circle, fueled by increased crime and reduced property values. With the recent housing crisis, a myriad of vacant homes are appearing in rural and once pristine communities previously immune to such delinquency. The homeless often turn vacant buildings into hotels, which Camden County (New Jersey) Police Officer Brandon Moreno refers to as “abandominiums.”

Vacant and abandoned buildings have a negative impact on a community’s image. Their presence may result in an increase of criminal activity and public safety problems.

Free webinar: Arson in Vacant and Abandoned Buildings

Arson in vacant and abandoned buildings is a dangerous combination for both the general public and the brave firefighters who battle these incidents. Join us on this free webinar to learn about:

  • The unique characteristics of vacant and abandoned structures and how they contribute to the ways these structures often burn.
  • The special challenges in investigating these fires.
  • The differences between an abandoned building and a vacant building.
  • An alternative to plywood for boarding up vacant and abandoned structures.
  • Activities a community can do to reduce the negative impact and blight associated with vacant and abandoned structures.
Watch recording

Sponsored by the Insurance Committee for Arson Control


Current events and issues

Clear boarding creates a “no-ply” zone

Learn about a new alternative to plywood for boarding up vacant buildings: clear board. This transparent covering allows law enforcement and first responders to look inside vacant buildings to identify illegal activity.

Find out more about clear boarding

Photo of home with plywood. Plywood
Photo of home with clear board. Clear board

According to recent statistics…

About 23,800 vacant residential building fire are reported each year and cause an estimated 75 deaths, 200 injuries and $785 million in property loss.

— USFA

Intentional actions are the leading cause of residential and nonresidential vacant building fires.

— USFA

About 6,400 vacant nonresidential building fire are reported each year and cause an estimated 5 deaths, 50 injuries and $205 million in property loss. (USFA)

An average of 550 incendiary/arson fires are reported each year at properties that are abandoned, vacant-secured, vacant-unsecured, uninhabited, idle, and to be demolished. (BATS)

Vacant and abandoned building fires cause a disproportionate share of firefighter injuries. (NFPA)

Vacant versus Abandoned: What’s the difference?

The difference between vacant and abandoned buildings is primarily related to the availability of an owner.

Vacant

Unoccupied buildings with an owner who is interested in the property and easily contacted are considered vacant. A vacant building usually has current taxes.

Abandoned

A property is considered abandoned if there is no owner or the landlord is absent. In addition, the building’s taxes are not paid, and the building is not legally occupied.

How to evaluate an abandoned or vacant building

“Basic Evaluation Procedures for Abandoned and Vacant Buildings” shows fire service officials how to collect information about an abandoned or vacant property that emergency responders can use to:

  • Determine if the building is secure.
  • Identify hazards that require immediate corrective action.
  • Evaluate the fire growth potential of the building.
  • Evaluate the potential for structural collapse.
  • Identify conditions that could be hazardous to personnel.

The guide also gives you tips on how to spot indications of problems involving the site, the building and its contents.

Download Basic Evaluation Procedures for Abandoned and Vacant Buildings PDF 452 KB

Training for fire investigators

Are you a fire investigator looking for specialized training on abandoned and vacant buildings? The International Association of Arson Investigators’ (IAAI) Certified Fire Investigator Trainer website (CFITRAINER.net) can help.

Their course “Vacant and Abandoned Buildings: Hazards and Solutions” provides an overview on how structures can become vacant and eventually abandoned. You will learn about:

  • Characteristics of vacant and abandoned structures and how they contribute to the ways these structures burn.
  • Challenges in investigating abandoned and vacant building fires.
  • How to determine property ownership.
  • Hazards posed by vacant and abandoned buildings.
  • Conducting a safe and successful investigation.

Visit CFITRAINER.net

See also: National Fire Academy Fire Investigation courses

PODCAST / 20 minutes National Fire Academy Superintendent Tonya Hoover talks about the Academy’s Fire Investigation curriculum and National Arson Awareness Week. Listen to the podcast on CFITRAINER.net.

What communities can do

Every firefighter knows that unsecured vacant or abandoned buildings are a significant public safety issue. Injuries to firefighters in these properties are linked to the hazards that are present in them. Learn about the four actions communities can take to reduce the negative impact and blight associated with vacant and abandoned buildings.

Community project idea

Board up - Clean up

A meaningful community project that can improve a neighborhood involves cleaning up and securing abandoned and vacant homes, which are probable arson targets. Often times, local box stores will provide the materials at cost or donate them for this project, which will help revitalize the area.

Undertaking this project will help your community to protect buildings that are temporarily vacant, pending rehabilitation and use.

  1. Prior to boarding up, contact public works to disconnect all utilities on the street. This includes natural gas, water and electricity. If there are liquefied petroleum gas tanks, they should be disconnected and removed.
  2. Begin by removing all garbage, material and excess vegetation capable of being ignited.
  3. Remove all possible sources of ignition, such as flammable liquids and unused gas containers.
  4. Secure abandoned and vacant homes by using additional locks and/or by boarding up broken windows, doors or other openings with plywood or clear board.

Materials list and specifications for board up projects

This reference guide provides instructions and a list of materials to assemble barriers for windows, doors and carriage bolts.

Download Board Up Procedures PDF 852 KB

Community stories

Vacant and abandoned buildings

Georgia Waycross, Georgia

On Dec. 15, 2013, at approximately 12:20 a.m., the Waycross Fire Department (WFD) responded to a structure fire at 1005 Isabella St., Waycross (Ware County), Georgia. Upon arrival, WFD firefighters initiated fire suppression efforts that included an interior attack. Later, during WFD operations, the roof subsequently collapsed, trapping and killing WFD Lieutenant Jeff Little under the debris. Lieutenant Little was a professional/career firefighter with approximately 29 years of experience.

The incident was originally investigated by the Georgia State Fire Marshal’s (GSFM’s) Office, who requested the assistance of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) Certified Fire Investigator (CFI) from the ATF Savannah Field Office (SFO). The concerned location was a vacant residential structure in dilapidated condition with no working utilities. The origin and cause investigation by the GSFM investigator and a GSFM Accelerant Canine Team concluded that the origin of this fire was in the southeast corner of the first floor, in/near the kitchen/utility room, and was caused by unknown person(s) who applied an open flame to ordinary combustibles. The fire was classified as incendiary. After a detailed technical review, the ATF CFI concurred with the origin, cause and classification of this fire.

After the fire, it was learned that the house was vacant and had been condemned. The structure was a single-family residence on a corner lot in a residential neighborhood. The residence had not been occupied since 2002 and had been condemned by the city of Waycross for code violations. The grounds surrounding the structure were unkempt — bushes, vegetation and trees were overgrown. The general appearance of the exterior of this residence was also unkempt, with varying degrees of deterioration. It would be apparent to any passerby that this was a vacant/abandoned house.

A task force comprised of the Waycross Police Department (WPD), GSFM and the ATF SFO was formed to investigate this arson-homicide. A tip received via the GSFM Arson Hotline identified two suspects. A WPD patrol officer recognized both individuals as being present near the fire scene at the time of the fire.

On Dec. 17, 2013, two days after the fire, Zachery Thompson, 17, and Ronnie Cranford, 23, were interviewed and later confessed to setting the fire with an open flame applied to ordinary combustibles inside the residence at 1005 Isabella St. that subsequently led to the death of Lieutenant Jeff Little. They provided details of the fire set that were consistent with evidence found by the CFIs in the area of origin — namely, the remains of clothing, the metal frame of a suitcase, and other ordinary combustibles.

In December 2014, Thompson and Cranford pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter, arson and criminal trespass. They were each sentenced to 13 years in prison. At the hearing, both men apologized to Little’s family.

Kansas Independence, Kansas

On Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008, between 5:30 and 6 p.m., just before the start of the annual Doo-Dah Parade which is part of the Neewollah (Halloween spelled backwards) Festival, detectives from the Independence (Kansas) Police Department (IPD) noticed smoke coming from an area southwest of their location. The detectives ran to that area and observed fire in a storage unit adjacent to the vacant Wagon Wheel Club bar.

Upon arrival of the Independence Fire Department, there was heavy fire involvement in a storage unit located directly to the east of the Wagon Wheel Club. The fire had extended to the west, involving the east side of the Wagon Wheel Club, which was connected to the storage unit.

During suppression operations, firefighters were sent into the Wagon Wheel Club and began pulling the ceiling in the bar. They found a fire within the space between the ceiling and roof. The only problem encountered during fire suppression was the fact that the fire had gotten into the void space between the ceiling and roof of the Wagon Wheel Club, which ultimately led to significant damage to the northern half of the bar.

The Kansas Office of the State Fire Marshal’s Office and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives assisted with the investigation. The origin and cause investigation concluded the fire initiated in the storage shed and breached the wall of the bar.

IPD detectives interviewed witnesses that reported observing one of three boys in the alley with what appeared to be a tarp or some other material on fire. He was in the area of the storage shed. Additional witnesses later came forward and identified a 13-year old juvenile as having been responsible for setting the fire. During an interview with detectives while his father was present, the juvenile confessed to setting the fire and was arrested the day after the incident.

A video posted on YouTube helped to confirm the witnesses’ accounts as to the origin of the fire.

The young man was convicted in state court of arson and other offences on May 18, 2009, with the sentencing/plea agreement taking place on June 29, 2009. The amount of restitution was set at $78,264.00.

Michigan Grand Rapids, Michigan

The fire was reported around 3:17 a.m. on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2010. It was in a two-stall unattached garage structure, part of a vacant house for sale, located at 2554 Breton Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan. The area of origin was the southeast corner of the garage, with the garage door closed but not locked prior to fire. For sale signs posted on a structure located in an isolated area can be attractive to would-be arsonists.

Investigators later determined that this was the fifth of 11 fires set between July and October, 2010, by a serial arsonist who terrorized the cities of Grand Rapids and Kentwood in western Michigan, about 30 miles east of Lake Michigan.

photo of burned structure

2554 Breton Ave. SE, Grand Rapids, Michigan

Ultimately, the serial arsonist was apprehended after a task force comprised of Grand Rapids and Kentwood Police and Fire, along with fire investigators from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), received an anonymous tip and began surveillance on a person of interest just after fire 10 which occurred in the detached garage of an occupied home, also in Grand Rapids.

After 26 days of nonstop surveillance of the suspect, the task force members apprehended 23-year-old Joseph McIntyre at 2:15 a.m. on Sunday, Oct.17, while he was setting another detached garage on fire in nearby Kentwood, Michigan. The arrest ended the terror before anyone was killed.

After being arrested and during a strategically arranged and planned interview, McIntyre confessed in detail to nine of the 11 fires. Nearly all of the fires were initiated with an open flame ignition (cigarette lighter) of available combustibles.

The ATF Certified Fire Investigator stated that it was a classic serial arsonist case, including fires in a geographic cluster, temporal frequency of setting the fires during the same time period or same day of the week, and the materials and methods remaining similar, as well as the locations of the fires. McIntyre was also a quintessential firesetter/arsonist, setting fires as a child, experiencing fascination and excitement with fire and how it spread, and having suffered abuse and neglect.

McIntyre scouted out locations, looking for easy targets, including garages with open overhead doors or easy access. He admitted that after each fire he set, he drove by as it was burning to observe what was happening. He enjoyed the feeling of power he felt over the fire department response and the subsequent media coverage. He claimed he had no intention of hurting anyone and trusted the fire department would do their job.

Plea negotiations failed because state and federal prosecutors offered no less than 20 years, while the defendant thought it was too much prison time, and he wanted a better deal. On Nov. 10, 2011, McIntyre was convicted after a jury trial on all charges filed within the state of Michigan. This included five charges of arson of a dwelling and three charges of home invasion. On Dec. 13, 2011, he was sentenced to a minimum of 20 years and maximum of 40 years in prison. Several potential federal charges for fires McIntyre set to structures that affected interstate commerce were held in abeyance, pending the outcome of the trial and sentencing in the state of Michigan.

Texas Odessa, Texas

On Sunday, July 26, 2009, at 2:12 p.m., three juveniles committing vandalism set fire to the House of Prayer Baptist Church located at 1301 Broughton Ave., Odessa, Texas. The church was vacant, as it was for sale.

Five firefighters were injured during a roof collapse during fire suppression operations. The fire scene was worked jointly with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Odessa Fire Marshal’s Office. The fire scene examination consisted of witness interviews and scene processing. Based upon the scene examination and witness statements, the fire was determined to have started in the pastor’s office and was classified as incendiary. The origin and cause was later verified through a defendant’s confession.

Early in the investigation, there was information stating that three juveniles were constantly harassing a care taker of the church. The juveniles were also seen breaking into the church and occasionally vandalizing it prior to the fire. Investigators received a Crime Stoppers tip that stated three juveniles were responsible for setting the church fire. Through investigative techniques, investigators were able to identify the three juveniles.

Two of the juveniles were later caught breaking into another building. While they were arrested on that burglary, investigators questioned them about the church fire. The juveniles admitted to setting the fire in the pastor’s office by pouring alcohol on a table and igniting it. The third juvenile was later arrested. At the time of the incident, two of the juveniles were 14 years old and the third juvenile was 15.

The three defendants were arrested on Sept. 1, 3, and 21, 2009. They pleaded guilty to state arson charges in Texas on Oct. 1, 2009, and Nov. 5, 2009. Two of the juveniles were sentenced to one year incarceration, and the third juvenile was referred to Immigration and Custom Enforcement for deportation.