At least six vagrants living in a boarded-up, vacant house fled as it burned Wednesday morning. Arriving firefighters struggled to put out the blaze as they made their way through the smoke and debris.
Smoke billowed from the front door of a burning, boarded-up southwest Canton house Wednesday as vagrants jumped from second-floor windows.
Inside, firefighters navigated an obstacle course of debris that included holes in the floors, burning tires and feces.
Canton Fire Prevention Bureau Investigator Tammy Wilkes caught one of the suspected vagrants a block and a half away. Firefighter-paramedics took him to a Canton hospital to be treated for injuries sustained in his escape from the burning house at 615 Wells Ave. SW, said Battalion Chief Thomas Garra.
Firefighters at the scene said that the other man escaped.
Firefighters had been called at 8:10 a.m. to the two-story, wood-frame vacant house at the corner of Wells and George Place, arriving to find fire in the basement, Garra said.
Smoke was coming from the front door on the eastern corner of the house and the first-floor window on the north side, Garra said.
The firefighters quickly put out the blaze in the trash-strewn house, which contained more than a dozen tires, a few mattresses and cushions, clothing, liquor bottles and garbage.
There were holes in the floor made either by previous renovation efforts or from fires that had occurred there before. Holes also had been ripped through walls, the result of apparent copper pipe theft.
And human waste covered a second-story bedroom floor.
Another small fire had been set in a first-floor front room by a mattress and some liquor bottles, firefighters pointed out. But it apparently had been set and then extinguished long before Wednesday’s fire, they said as they continued to check the house for still-burning embers.
Clearly, they said, vagrants have been living in the house.
The cause of the fire that sent as many as vagrants running from it was unknown and remained under investigation, Garra said.
While Fire Prevention Bureau investigators conducted their investigation, firefighters also notified building and health department officials about the condition of the house.
The house at 615 Wells is one of a side-by-side string of four houses on the west side of the former Wells Administration Building.
All of them were boarded up. All of them sustained fire damage in recent years, firefighters pointed out.
Still, all of them are open.
Some of the boards from each one had been pried off. Curtains blew threw broken glass on the broken windows.
The house at 705 Wells contained an open basement window and brush and ivy so thick that it had grown over some of the boarded windows and doors.
The house at 615 Wells where Wednesday morning’s fire broke out is owned by a Coschocton man who owes thousands in delinquent taxes, an amount that adds up to half the value of the house, according to Stark County property records.
Page 2 of 2 - Garra said that Fire Prevention Bureau reports indicated more than 4,000 boarded up houses in Canton, structures that legally should be vacant.
“This is what’s a danger to firefighters,” he said. “We want to put (these fires) out. We want to keep them from spreading to other nearby structures. You get to a house that you think it’s abandoned and then there’s a person inside and that puts our firefighters more and more at risk.”
When vagrants take trash, such as tires, into a house, or previous construction has left holes in the floors, firefighters are left to deal not only with smoke that robs them of visibility in a burning house, they also face injury or death from falling from one floor into another.
And then there’s the fear that someone is inside the burning house.
“You always have that risk that there could be a vagrant inside that structure,” Garra pointed out. “This time there was. You never know.”
YOU CAN HELP
The Canton Fire Prevention Bureau asks that anyone with information about Wednesday’s fire at a vacant house on Wells Avenue contact them at 330-489-3400.