Vacant and abandoned buildings: A favorite arson target

April 30, 2018

A building damaged by arson

It’s been the neighborhood eyesore for years: peeling paint, broken windows, weeds and trash everywhere. There’s no one living there to get hurt. So who cares if someone sets it on fire? You should.

Arson fires in vacant and abandoned buildings are more of an issue than you think, even here in Minnesota. And if you think they’re only a problem in urban areas, think again. One of the most recent fires at an abandoned property was on April 13 in rural Dodge County.

So why should we care about abandoned buildings burning? For one thing, the fire can spread to nearby occupied buildings, endangering the lives and property of people who live and work nearby. For another, fires in vacant and abandoned buildings tend to injure firefighters more often than other fires, according to the National Fire Protection Agency.

If you think about it, it makes sense that fires in vacant and abandoned buildings can be more dangerous than those in other structures. An abandoned building is likely to have deteriorated with age and weather, making it more combustible. It could be the subject of vandalism and urban mining – that’s when people steal wiring and pipes from a building – which can create more pathways for smoke and fire to spread. It could also be used as a trash dump, which would involve combustible or even explosive materials.

What’s more, buildings that seem to be vacant tend to be more tempting targets for arsonists. But just because a building is abandoned doesn’t mean it’s vacant. It’s possible there are squatters inside, children playing, teens partying, or people doing any one of a number of criminal activities. All of these people would be in danger were the building to catch fire.

Every month, investigators from the State Fire Marshal Division assist local fire departments on intentionally set fires in vacant or abandoned buildings. In fact, there were 50 of them in Minnesota in 2017 – that’s 18 percent of the total building arson fires, and it’s the highest in five years (the lowest was in 2015, with 30).

May 6-12 is National Arson Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is “Reducing Arson at Vacant Abandoned Buildings.” It’s a great time to take note of any vacant or abandoned buildings in your neighborhood, and report them to your city or local fire department. You can also ask if they have a board-up program to help mitigate the risk. And remember: If you have information about a suspicious fire, you can call the Minnesota Arson Hotline at 800-723-2020 or go online to submit a tip on their website.

So next time you’re walking Rufus, give some thought to that abandoned house in the neighborhood and take this opportunity to do something about it.