Vacant house fires rise as temperatures fall

Photo provided by Parkersburg Fire Department Parkersburg Fire Department trucks are shown in the 1200 block of Laird Avenue Thursday morning, where firefighters extinguished a blaze in a vacant house.

PARKERSBURG — Parkersburg firefighters extinguished a blaze Thursday morning in the 1200 block of Laird Avenue, the latest in a series of recent incidents involving fires in vacant structures as people seek shelter from the cold.

The house at 1210 Laird Ave. had “no utilities, vacant home, squatters had been staying there,” Parkersburg Fire Chief Jason Matthews said Thursday. “It appears like some of the other ones, people in there trying to stay warm.”

Firefighters were dispatched at 6:28 a.m. Thursday and arrived on scene within five minutes, Matthews said. Although the flames were doused in about 10 minutes, the chief estimated smoke and water damage could amount to tens of thousands of dollars.

The fire remains under investigation, but Matthews said it appears it was started by small combustible items being burned in temperatures that hovered around 30 degrees Thursday morning.

“(Police) and code are constantly trying to get people to move out of these buildings,” he said.

Photo provided by Parkersburg Fire Department Parkersburg firefighters work to contain a fire at 1210 Laird Ave. Thursday morning. Fire Chief Jason Matthews said the incident was the latest in a recent series of fires in vacant structures where people were apparently seeking shelter and trying to stay warm.

The Fire Department responded to minor fires at a vacant house at 1100 Fourth Ave. on Saturday and a vacant trailer at 2311 Pike St. on Tuesday, Matthews said. Both appeared to have started from the burning of small items, like clothing, for warmth.

“We’ve been fortunate that these ones in these vacant homes have been small,” Matthews said.

In an effort to keep folks healthy and provide a refuge in the cold, the Salvation Army in Parkersburg relaxes the rules for people to stay at its shelter when the temperature hits freezing, Maj. Matthew Riley said.

“When it gets down to 32 and below, we just allow people to come in,” he said.

The shelter had 16 people overnight Wednesday, a slightly lower number than the previous night.

Numbers have been up at the Latrobe Street Mission, but Executive Director Steve Clay said it appears to have little to do with the weather.

“We’ve been full like this since August,” Clay said.

Sixty-eight people spent Wednesday night at the shelter, and numbers have been running in the mid-60s to low 70s, he said. The mission recorded a total of 12,106 overnight stays in 2017, but by the end of November this year, the running tally had topped 17,600.

Clay said the drug epidemic and “bad decision-making” are partially to blame, but he said higher rent prices are also a factor, something he attributed to increasing oil and gas business.

“I’m seeing a lot more families with kids,” he said. “I think we’re up because of several things.”