(ST. JOSEPH, Mo.) The St. Joseph Fire Department said they're seeing a significant increase in the number of vacant structures catching fire.
Since 2013, the number of vacant structure fires has doubled, going from 22 that year to over 40 in 2017.
"In vacant houses the electricity isn't always disconnected from them," Robert Blizzard, fire investigator, said. "Sometimes it can be a homeless person coming inside to light a fire to get warm. And then of course, someone actually setting the fire intentionally."
Many of these building end up being demolished after a fire.
City officials said if they are unable to contact the owner of the property then the city is left to pick up the cost of demolishing the building. However, this money comes from tax payer dollars.
“We have many that we can’t find the owners or the insurance company refuses to pay, and so the tax payers end up paying for it," Donna Jean Boyer, city council member, said.
City officials said the money comes from funds the city receives by the federal government. St. Joseph is considered an entitlement city, meaning the government gives the city money to go towards programs that benefit low to moderate income people.
“The last thing the city wants to do is have to use these funds to do the demolition where a private individual should really take responsibility for their property," Clint Thompson, planning and community development director, said.
Thompson said the city uses an average of $150,000 a year to do the demolition and securing of vacant structures.
“The goal of the city is to work with property owners in an effort that we can save these properties before they become financially impossible to save," Thompson said.
These fires can also put extra risk on firefighters because they have no way of knowing what's inside the structure.
“One of my concerns about structures that are vacant and catch on fire is the risk to our firefighters because they’re going into a situation that they don’t know what they’re going to encounter," Boyer said.
The Fire Department said for many of the vacant house fires, the cause is undetermined. Fires often leave the building in such a terrible state that there's no other option than demolition.
"It takes a while to get them demolished," Blizzard said. "I had one about three months ago that just got demolished maybe a week ago. So, it takes them a while to get demolished.”
There are currently about 45 structures in St. Joseph that have been red tagged, meaning without immediate action they will be demolished.
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