Arsons of abandoned homes on the rise

Residents are concerned with an outbreak of arsons.
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A recent rash of arsons has neighbors worried and city leaders scratching their heads.

This year the number of intentionally set fires of vacant homes has now surpassed the number of occupied residences. It's a complicated issue. Vacant and abandoned homes attract all kinds of crime, including arson. The solution is complicated too.

In late August, flames shot through the roof of a vacant home on Rookwood Avenue in the Butler Tarkington neighborhood. A total of three unoccupied homes caught fire. The cause was undetermined, but $120,000 in damage was done and neighbors were terrified.

"It took me a minute today to get my heart back to normal," said Bernice Carlson, who lives in the neighborhood. "Because that was the most fearful something that I had ever experienced in a lifetime."

Citywide this year, the joint IFD/IMPD arson unit has investigated more fires at vacant structures than at occupied ones. There have been at least 88 arson investigations of vacant or abandoned structures, compared to 74 occupied structures.

The seemingly victimless crime, in fact, has many victims.

"Are they getting a kick out of it or what?" asked neighbor Bill Groce rhetorically. "It's crazy."

He lives near a burned home on Brookside Avenue, which was investigated as a suspicious fire. 

"It's scary," he said. "If they're in this neighborhood setting fires, I live right down the street...mine could be next."

The Indianapolis Fire Department motto is "Risk little to save a little, risk a lot to save a lot." But when firefighters arrive at a vacant house, they can't be certain that no one's home. So firefighters are putting their lives in jeopardy.

"It's an undue risk and we don't like to do that," explained Indianapolis Fire Chief Brian Sanford.

Twenty-two Indianapolis firefighters have been injured fighting vacant house fires this year. One suffered second- and third-degree burns and could be on medical leave for months. 

"There's risks for us, there's risks for the public and, as I've said, there's great risk that maybe the next person that does need the services and that now our closest units are not in service," said Sanford.

There's also a cost in dollars. 

"We get the call and have to get contractors to tear it down that day," said Reginald Walton, Assistant Administrator of Abandoned Buildings for the City of Indianapolis.

Taxpayers foot the bill to tear down abandoned homes damaged by fire. The cost is three times greater than a scheduled demolition.  

"On average, we spend about $6,500, but once we get into those overtime hours working with our demo contractors, it usually costs us about $15,000-18,000 on average," explained Walton.

It's an issue the city can try to board up or demolish, but Bill Groce is convinced more homes will burn.  

"Two (fires) in three days. They're not done. There's some more vacants down here," he said. "This is just not a good neighborhood anymore."

One way of getting rid of abandoned homes is by getting someone to live in them. The city is trying to sell abandoned homes and some can be bought for as little as a couple thousand dollars.

Indy Land Bank