Jeannette probes string of arsons

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In the blocks around Division Street in Jeannette, problems with vacant homes -- from rodents to squatters to structural hazards -- are nothing new.

But in the past 10 months, residents have been faced with another danger: arson.

Since May 2011, firefighters have had to battle a dozen fires at vacant homes, 11 that have been listed as arson and one in which the cause was listed as "undetermined." A Feb. 12 blaze was set in a home where a family lived. No one was injured.

Investigators have ruled a total of five fires set in the area since the beginning of January to be arsons. The remaining occurred in May, October and November. Four have occurred on Division Street, including two that were set at different buildings on the same plot.

Police Chief Brad Shepler said police have interviewed "people of interest" but no arrests have been made. He said the fires have varied in severity and location and he has not detected any particular pattern.

"It's a big strain on the city," he said. "With the finances the way they are in town ... anything that adds a cost to the city is a burden."

Compounding matters, the city cannot afford to tear down vacant homes, even the ones that are now charred from fires. It costs $8,000 to $10,000 to demolish a vacant house, said city clerk Michael J. Minyon Jr. He estimated the city hasn't paid to demolish one since 2007.

So strained are the city's finances that it qualified for the state's Early Intervention Program, intended to help communities that are sliding toward an Act 47 designation, which would declare the municipality "financially distressed" and require appointment of a state overseer for the city's finances.

"We're just trying to keep our head above water ... in the day-to-day operations of the city," Mr. Minyon said. "We'd love to have [demolition of vacant homes] as a priority, but we just don't have the funds right now."

The arsons have created eyesores for nearby residents, said fire Chief Joe Matijevic, who also hears about other nuisances related to vacant homes.

"It's definitely a blight to the community to have a building that's burned," he said. City officials "do their best" to track down owners to ask them to tear down their damaged properties, he said, which can pose risks to neighboring properties.

"All we can do is tell them to. It's up to them to tear them down," he said.

The fires also pose unnecessary risks to firefighters, who have to search a home that's been set ablaze even if it's known to be vacant, Chief Matijevic said. One firefighter was injured the night of Feb. 3 when a glass window blew out while he was battling a fire on Chestnut Street, slicing the back of his neck and sending him to the hospital. That fire was ruled an arson.

"We got to respond and go through the process of searching the homes," he said. "That puts our lives at risk."

In at least one case, an arson fire put residents at risk. In the Feb. 12 fire on North Third Street, two boys, ages 12 and 14, were playing video games in an upstairs room, unaware that someone had set the basement of the home ablaze. A neighbor saw smoke and alerted the boys, who escaped unharmed.

Chief Matijevic said firefighters have been lucky that none of the fires have spread to occupied homes since houses often are just feet apart from one another.

"[Arsonists] don't think of the danger they're posing to anyone else. They just want to see the fire," he said.

Chief Shepler urged people to call 911 immediately if they see anything suspicious or if they have any information related to the fires.


Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2533.


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