IFD asks community to look for suspicious activity at vacant homes

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Indianapolis Fire Department officials are asking residents across the city to serve as extra eyes and ears in their own neighborhoods after the department responded to multiple fires at vacant structures Sunday.

Battalion Chief Rita Reith says four out of the six fires that happened within a 12-hour period Sunday occurred at houses or apartments that were supposed to be empty. The fires happened in different parts of the city, and the cause of each fire remains under investigation.

While none of the fires have been ruled arson, they are raising concerns about the ongoing problem of illegal activity within vacant structures.

“We’re just asking for everybody’s help to make sure that if you do see something, please call and say something,” Reith said. “We urge the neighbors to call 911, call IMPD, and let them know that there’s activity in a boarded up house.”

Sunday morning started early for fire crews when they were called to a house fire in the 200 block of Shelby Street shortly before 7:30 a.m. One firefighter suffered a twisted ankle during the 30-minute fire fight.

“On the occasion where we do get a firefighter injured in a vacant structure, it just simply makes that injury even more a bitter pill to swallow,” Reith said.

The property manager for the house, Greg Foyer, said a new tenant was in the process of moving in, but she didn’t get the chance. He believes somebody used a concrete planter to smash through a door and get into the house early Sunday morning.

“Someone decided to crash in there and deliberately, either deliberately or through stupidity, ended up starting a fire in the back,” Foyer said.

Foyer said people have been illegally entering boarded up homes in his neighborhood along Shelby Street for years.

You always do the best you can to secure a house when people are in a transition for move-in,” Foyer said. “But you can’t stop people if they’re going to crash in doors or crash in windows.”

On the east side of the city, Margaret Baxter said she’s been seeing people come and go recently at a house that caught fire Sunday near the corner of Bradley Avenue and New York Street shortly before midnight Sunday night.

“The house was boarded up, but they tore the boards down,” Baxter said. “Every time those weeds and trees grow up, we can’t see and things go on.”

Reith said firefighters entering the house through the front door quickly realized there was no floor in the front room of the house.

“The middle of the night, it’s heavy black smoke, they can’t see a thing, they’re crawling into this structure and immediately upon entry, there is no floor there,” Reith said.

Another fire on the corner of 10th and Concord Street caused roughly $45,000 worth of damage to the two-story house around 11:15 Sunday night.

The largest fire of the night happened at the soon-to-be demolished Oaktree Apartments on the northeast side of Indianapolis. 13 IFD units and three Lawrence Fire Department units spent 90 minutes fighting the blaze. Contractors spent Monday securing portions of the roof, and at least two apartment units could be seen missing their outside wall as a result.

While vacant structure fires regularly put firefighters and adjacent neighbors at risk, the impact of the fires go beyond the neighborhoods where they happen. Reith said a box alarm fire run can cost Indianapolis taxpayers around $1,500 in things like fuel, materials, wear and tear on equipment and other factors.

She’s urging residents to be vigilant about what’s happening in their neighborhoods, and call police if they think somebody is going into a house where they shouldn’t be.

“Really, we just kind of need eyes on the neighborhoods and are asking everybody to help us do that,” Reith said.

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