Sounding the alarm; Vacant house fires on the rise in Syracuse

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — If you feel like we’ve been telling you about a lot of fires in empty buildings and houses in the city of Syracuse, it’s because we have.

That’s why the Your Stories team began digging into the numbers.

In the first six months of the year, 43% of all fires in the city have taken place inside vacant buildings.

“There are a lot of areas to trip, slip and fall, for firefighters back here,” Syracuse Lt. Auggie Matt said, as he walked NewsChannel 9’s Rachel Polansky around the aftermath of a recent house fire. “If we had to make entry here, we don’t have a set of stairs here so we have to climb up and make our own access.”

Lt. Matt shows some of the many hazards firefighters encountered at this abandoned home on Leon Street – near Dr. King Elementary School.

“One of the challenges is, you don’t know what you’re gonna find?” Polansky asked. 

“It’s unknown, yep,” Lt. Matt said. 

“These homes are so dangerous because we don’t have the information about the structural integrity, we don’t know who’s inside, we don’t know if there’s holes in the floor, so it’s a little different than our regular house fires,” Syracuse Fire Chief Michael Monds said.

That’s why Chief Monds said his crews treat every fire as though people are inside.

“And as you’ve seen in the recent fires, we have people a lot of times, that are habitating these houses. So, we go in as if it’s an occupied home,” Chief Monds added.

And fire calls tied to homelessness are common – especially in the colder months when people are trying to stay warm.

“Recently coming off the pandemic, there was a spike in people that are homeless that use vacant houses as shelter, I think there’s probably an increase,” Chief Monds said.

Not probably.

According to the data, there’s been a steady increase.

In 2022, 13% of fires in Syracuse were in vacant buildings. In 2023, that number grew to 30%. And in the first six months of 2024, 43% of fires in the city were in vacant buildings.

“It’s just kind of scary to me because I don’t want to see anyone getting hurt,” Sonya Cohen, who lives next door to a vacant home that recently caught fire, said.

While it sat abandoned for years, Cohen said she watched squatters come and go.

“I would hate for anybody to die in that house,” Cohen added.

Chief Monds shares the same sentiment.

“We’re lucky we haven’t had a death by a civilian or one of our firefighters or a major injury in one of these homes,” Chief Monds added.

Chief Monds’ best advice: If you see something, say something.

Call the city’s non-emergency number 315-442-5111 if you see people going in and out of vacant homes and stop vacant house fires before they happen.

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