Number of Youngstown arsons down dramatically

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There were years when the city fire department responded to more than 300 calls for arsons at vacant houses.

But thanks to what fire officials say is an increased emphasis on demolition in recent years, the department handled just 52 arsons last year at vacant homes and another nine at vacant buildings for a total of 61 arsons in vacant structures.

Capt. Kurt Wright, the department’s fire investigator, said the demolition in the city decreases the stock of available homes for arsonists to torch.

The city had 100 arsons in 2017, 126 in 2016 and 195 in 2015.

In the past three years, the city has knocked down 1,748 vacant homes. In 2018, the city, the Mahoning County Land Bank, private contractors and the city’s street department in the form of emergency demolitions combined to knock down 646 buildings. In 2017 and 2016, the city demolished 561 and 541 vacant homes, respectively.

Fire Chief Barry Finley also credited demolition for reducing the number of arsons.

“The demolition people are ... getting the houses down pretty quick,” Finley said. “The number [of vacant houses] is getting smaller and smaller.”

Mike Durkin, code enforcement and blight remediation superintendent for Youngstown, said the city tries to prioritize where houses need to be torn down. For example, he said if one house is making an entire block look bad, that house will be torn down. He also said they try to concentrate on single streets, and he said two streets on the North Side last year – Norwood and Lora avenues – saw a lot of demolitions.

Durkin also said he tries to coordinate with the land bank so they are not doing demolitions in the same area because he wants to spread the resources across the city. He estimated on contract demolitions alone the city spent $1.2 million in 2018.

Street department demolitions are emergency demolitions, which are often buildings that are destroyed or damaged in a fire. Those structures are referred to the street department by the fire department.

Councilman Nathan Pinkard, D-3rd, and chairman of the safety committee on council, said he had not seen the arson report and could not comment on the numbers, but he did add he has no doubt the city’s demolition program is responsible for the downturn because it is reducing the number of houses that could be set on fire.

In most years, the South Side has the most arsons, and that was true in 2018 as there were 25 arsons on that side of town. However, in 2017, the West Side saw 24 arsons, 19 of those believed to be connected in a series of fires in August and September, which stopped in October after a suspect was arrested on an unrelated burglary charge.

Wright said about 1 percent of arsons result in a conviction. He said these are hard crimes to solve because often, people don’t mind seeing an eyesore in their neighborhood being destroyed.

“It is hard because the mentality of some people is either they are happy to see it go or they don’t want to get involved because they are afraid of retaliation,” Wright said.

Wright said just because a home is vacant doesn’t mean there isn’t activity. He said people often squat in them, not so much because they are living there but because they are doing drugs or other kinds of illegal activity.

Finley said vacant house fires are some of the most dangerous that firefighters can encounter because most vacant houses are old and unstable to begin with. Add fire to the equation, and it is easier for firefighters to be injured, Finley said.

“It becomes very unstable,” he said.

Another area that saw a dramatic decline in arsons in 2018 was vehicle fires, Wright said, as the city recorded 30 after having 100 in 2017. Wright said a big factor for this decline is because the city has closed several streets in the rural area of the far East Side, which used to be a prime dumping ground for cars to be burned.

The city recorded seven fire deaths in 2018, five of them in the December fire at a Parkcliffe Avenue home that killed five children. Wright said he is waiting for the coroner’s reports on the victims before submitting his final report on what caused the fire, but it is not considered suspicious.

In 2018 overall, the fire department answered 4,338 calls, an increase from the 3,113 calls it answered in 2017, according to fire department records.