A fire in a vacant home in Fresno almost killed a homeless man but firefighters arrived in time to cut a hole in the side of the building and pull him to safety.
The dramatic rescue was captured on a video camera attached to a firefighter’s helmet.
Fire Chief Kerri Donis praised the heroism of those who saved the homeless man but said the rescue simply underscores the larger problem of too many vacant buildings in Fresno catching fire. That just adds to the workload of one of the busiest fire departments in the nation, she said.
On Oct. 4, a fire crew went to a call at 2421 E. Grant Ave., near Belmont Avenue and Fresno Street. Police told firefighters a man was trapped in the subfloor of the vacant home.
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The fire blocked his escape, but he found a deep crawl space under the floor to escape smoke and intense heat, Donis said. Someone saw “a hand sticking out.”
Video from the helmet cam shows a firefighter using an ax to chop a hole in the siding. A chainsaw was also used so firefighters could get inside before it was too late.
“Our firefighters did an incredible job of rescuing that man and providing great service to him, and treatment,” Donis said.
On the run
“The problem we’re having is that our fire calls keep going up,” Donis said. “They’re not coming down at all. In fact, this year the vacant structure fires more than doubled and we’re not even at the end of the year.”
Last year, there were 33 fires involving vacant buildings, she said, but this year there have been 76. Half of the fires in vacant buildings this year involve homeless and transients. Fresno has about one or two structure fires per day.
“This is one of the very busiest fire departments in the country,” Donis said. “We have an inordinate amount of structure fires consistently year over year in the city.”
Half of all fires in Fresno are under investigation for possible arson, meaning a fire that was intentionally set, she said. The cause of the fire where the rescue took place is still under investigation.
The motivation for starting a fire varies but keeping warm is one, especially in winter, Donis said.
She outlined steps to combat the issue:
The fire department is working with the city’s administration and code enforcement division, police and others to try to reduce the numbers of vacant building fires. The public can help by calling police if they see transients in a vacant building.
“We are encouraging our residents, if they see something, say something,” Donis said.
Vacant buildings must be boarded and sometimes fenced to keep people out. When a vacant building is being ignored, the fire department has been working with code enforcement to get it boarded up.
It is the responsibility of the property owner to be sure a vacant building is properly boarded up. Burt even when fences are put up, people find ways to get in.
Fires in vacant buildings are adding to firefighter stress, Donis said. “We have 77 firefighters on staff each day in the city. We’ve talked about that openly about increasing that staffing as funds become available.
“But we haven’t added any staffing in three years. We really need…to give some relief to these firefighters. They are just running call after call after call without any break.”
Firefighters have a higher risk of cancer, she said.
“They’re talking about ‘shower within an hour’ to try and get those carcinogens off of your body, your skin, your hair within an hour of going on those calls. But they keep going to one call, then packing up and picking up another call on their way back to the station. It’s very taxing.”