Vacant lots, houses can pose fire danger to neighbors

Vacant lots, houses can pose fire danger to neighbors »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — A massive fire on South Union Avenue burned a large, abandoned piece of property Wednesday.

The blaze also threatened a number of homes just to the south. It's an example of a real danger, but neighbors can fight back.

The big property on South Union is just north of Panama Lane and three to five acres in size. Fire crews said there was a lot to burn, and it was quick to go.

"Everything on this property was flammable," Bakersfield Battalion Chief Ross Kelly said. "We had multiple structures that are on the property. We had animal pens that are constructed of wood. We had dry grass, the overgrown vegetation, all the overgrown trees."

Then add very hot temperatures, low humidity and wind. The fire took off and whipped south toward a subdivision of homes on the west side of South Union.

"We kind of got the fire right here behind us up to the fence, and the neighbor's," Seti Kersh told Eyewitness News on Wednesday. "The lady behind us, her yard got burned as well."

The neighborhood is separated from the big, vacant property by a wooden fence. In three or four places, the fence is now charred and parts are missing.

Near Union, the fire skipped into a neighbor's yard, scorched their grass, and even burned a side fence. Kelly estimated that fence is least 100 feet away. He said hot embers blew across, and reached the other fence.

Kelly said neighbors believe the property north of them has been abandoned for at least four years. With no property-owner around to clean up, the chief says neighbors should call local officials.

"The best thing you can do is notify code enforcement," he said. "They can search for the property owner."

If the owner can't be found, or if the property's bank owned, city or county officials can start the process to clean up the site and get paid back later.

Kelly said getting a lot cleared of dry brush and debris reduces the risk. It's especially important to at least clear around the perimeter of an abandoned piece of property.

He said there should be 100 feet of "defensible" space, starting with 30 feet that are cleaned down to bare dirt.

That gives a fire no fuel to reach neighboring properties, and makes room for crews to get in and protect the other homes.

"We can put hose line in place with our personnel, and we can use that as a defensive point to prevent the fire from progressing beyond there," Kelly explained.

The other problem on the big lot is the vacant house. The wooden A-frame is missing doors and windows, and it looks like people have stayed there from time to time. Vacant houses are supposed to be secured from trespassing.

If that's not the case, that's another red flag, said the fire battalion chief.

"If you notice activity within the home, plywood's been removed, you start seeing foot traffic inside, report that also," he said.

The chief said Bakersfield has seen an increase in vacant homes and an increase in fires at these locations.

In 2011, the Bakersfield Fire Department went to 39 fires involving vacant structures. Already this year, crews report 42 fires in empty houses.

The lot on South Union is actually in the county, and a code enforcement officer told Eyewitness News they are now investigating who owns it. He said they haven't had any reports about conditions or problems until now.

To reach Kern County Code Enforcement, call (661) 862-8603. The code enforcement number for the city of Bakersfield is 326-3712.

Neighbors on South Union had watched the big blaze, and hoped for the best.

"We were in the back, trying to stop it, but it got bigger," Vanessa Rojas told Eyewitness News. Seti Kersh said his family watched the blaze head toward their fence, and they ended up with water damage and a broken window.

"Property like this creates not only a hazard here, they create a hazard to all of the residences that surround this property," Kelly said, as he walked through the blackened lot.

The fireman says neighbors need to report problems, so the dangerous conditions can be cleaned up. "Definitely, if you see something, you want to say something."