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Fires in Vacant Buildings Increasing, NFPA Warns

The recession is a great concern for many Americans, although a new report suggests it may be worrying firefighters for a particular reason: Vacant home fires and the total number of vacant housing units in this country are both rising fast, the National Fire Protection Association says.

NFPA's April 2009 "Vacant Building Fires" report says U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated annual average of 31,000 structure fires in vacant buildings in 2003-2006. Those fires caused an average of 50 civilian deaths, 141 civilian deaths, 4,500 firefighter injuries (13 percent of all firefighter injuries that occurred in structure fires), and $642 million in direct property damage per year.

"With the downturn in the economy, the numbers of vacant buildings and vacant building fires have been climbing," said Marty Ahrens, who wrote the report. "Often these fires have time to grow before they are discovered and reported. These larger fires can threaten other properties nearby. Because children and youth may use these buildings for hangouts or risky activities, and the homeless may use them as shelter, firefighters cannot be sure that no one is inside."

The report says total vacant building fires rose 2 percent, from 31,900 in 2005 to 32,700 in 2006, and 63 percent of them occurred in homes. NFPA said Census Bureau data indicate vacant housing units hit three consecutive 40-year peaks in 2006, 2007, and 2008. While vacant home fires rose 11 percent, from 18,900 in 2005 to 21,000 in 2006, total home fires rose only 4 percent during that period. Forty-three percent of vacant building fires were intentionally set.

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