Charleston Firefighters Face Unique Challenges Battling Numerous Vacant House Fires


“They just do what they do normally, which is destroy stuff.” said Carl Mick, of Charleston.  Mick lives next door to a home that burnt to the ground Monday.  The “they” who he’s referring to is a subsection of people in Charleston that have posed a serious problem in the city. 

Criminal vagrants, trespassers, squatters- it doesn’t really matter what you call them.  Charleston city officials say they’re the cause of the vast majority of structure fires.

Capt. M. Shank with the Charleston Fire Department said over the course of 2017, roughly 70% of the fires in the city were set by criminal vagrants.

One man was arrested in the morning hours on Monday, February 19 following a massive fire in an vacant home along Shrewsbury Street.

Shank said there are unique risks that come along with fighting these fires.  “There are needles on the floor,” Shank said.  “There is human waste on the floor.  There are holes on the floor.”

“Most of these houses are boarded up,” he said.  “The reason they’re boarded up is because it makes it harder to get into them, but it also makes it hard to get out.”

Which puts the lives of the people inside and firefighters at risk. 

And then, there’s the issue of collateral damage, take this recent fire on Russell Street, for instance.  Shank said a firefighter’s first priority is to protect life, and their second priority is to protect property. 

Protecting property in many Charleston neighborhoods proves to be a challenge, because many of the homes are in such close proximity to each other.  Every surrounding home to the destroyed Russell Street home received damage.  A portion of a car across the street melted, too.

Mick said, “I was right next door.  I could have burned up and died myself.”

It’s a common question, and one that our newsroom is asked frequently.   What, if anything is being done about this issue?

Shank said, “If there was an easy solution, it would already be done.”  

A number of agencies are working together to try and find solutions- the Building Commission, Charleston Police, Charleston Fire, and others, including a number of non-profits. 

One by one, dilapidated homes are coming down across the city.  The goal, in fact, is three per day.

Meantime, for now, firefighters aren’t anticipating this issue to get any better, any time soon.  They expect that 70% statistic last year to increase this year, Shank said.

Several arrests have been made in connection with fires set in the city.  Keep in mind, officers with the Charleston Police Department say there are resources available for those who need and want them, including housing.  

If you or someone you know needs assistance, contact the Community Services Division of the Charleston Police Department for more information.   

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