Increase in vacant house fires across the region

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KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The Charleston Fire Department says as the temperature drops, the number of vacant house fires is expected to rise.

The Charleston Fire Department says as the temperature drops, the number of vacant house fires is expected to rise.

"In the past few years the homeless population has increased structure fires for us," said Charleston Fire Capt. Les Smith. "Several years ago we were fighting close to 60 to 80 structure fires. It's well over 100 now."

But Charleston is not a lone soldier in this battle. Flames have been lighting up the night sky across our region during the past month.

Just before Halloween, a home in Pratt was engulfed in flames. Last week, there was a massive fire in Logan County that took down an apartment building.

More recently this past weekend, there were two fires in Huntington and one Saturday night in Charleston on Ohio Avenue. One thing they all have in common is that officials say they were all vacant homes.

"It makes us really worried, especially when you see one catch on fire," said Loren Allen, who lives in Charleston.

In some circumstances, fire officials have said squatters are to blame and with the cold weather underway they believe more will come with it.

"Past few weeks, we've seen a steady week of abandoned structure fires primarily because of the cold weather," Smith said.

Loren Allen lives right down the street from the fire Saturday night on Ohio Avenue in Charleston and says hearing that the numbers will increase is no surprise.

"I mean, this is the time of year where we always start seeing more activity around these abandoned buildings, see people sort of hanging around the porch or behind even, where it's a little sheltered," Allen said.

But neighbors and fire officials say it poses a danger to not only the neighbors and firefighters, but also to the people who could potentially be inside.

"If it's not safe for our firefighters to make entry then we have to make a decision to stand outside and hit it outside and not let our individuals go in, which is detrimental because if there is a homeless individual in there and they become trapped, they've kind of signed their own death warrant," Smith told WSAZ.

Mark Riley lives next door to where the Charleston fire broke out Saturday night. He says he's grateful someone knocked on his door to bring him to safety.

"it scares me to a point because you don't know what's going to happen from one night to the next," Riley said. "A lot of homeless people will find places to sit and try to get warm or whatever and this is what happens."

Charleston Mayor Amy Goodwin says the city is working everyday with the building commission to board up homes and find further solutions. She says it's a big problem and they are working on it daily. The city will begin fining people who are leaving the homes abandoned. Right now, the city is working to identify which homes need to come down and come down quickly.