- The Washington Times - Friday, March 1, 2002

D.C. firefighters scrambled yesterday morning to douse three fires in the District, including one at an abandoned building that was on the mayor's list of nuisance properties.

A fire broke out at an abandoned town house in the 900 block of N Street NE at 8:30 a.m., and about 50 firefighters were called to the scene to contain the blaze, the cause of which was unknown.

"We don't know [what caused the fire] because the building is so structurally unsound," said Alan Etter, fire department spokesman. Mr. Etter said structural engineers are investigating the remains of the building, but "there is really no hurry because this structure has been on the mayor's list of nuisance properties."

The problems associated with vacated buildings, such as the N Street property, are well known. They attract drug addicts and squatters, and often are used by homeless people trying to escape the cold.

Mr. Williams established the Vacant and Abandoned Housing Initiative in January to deal with the problem of abandoned properties. The aim of the program is to allow the District to gain control of vacant houses and sell them to developers who will rehabilitate them into housing for people of all incomes.

"We are moving as aggressively as we can, with a limited staff and a limited budget" said Scott Barkan, a special assistant to the deputy mayor for planning and economic development. He later said implementation is on schedule and that the department plans to sell its first round of properties to a qualified developer in July.

Firefighters deal with their own sets of problems when it comes to fighting fires in abandoned structures.

"Every incident commander has to weigh the rush-in [mentality] versus the ulitimate benefit," said Chief Nick Russo of the Hull, Mass., fire department.

Chief Russo was one of the first men on the scene during a deadly December 2000 fire in Worcester, Mass. Six firefighters, who were told erroneously that people were inside an abandoned warehouse on fire, lost their lives when they became trapped during their search. As a result, Chief Russo has become a leading advocate for firefighters dealing with blazes in vacated buildings.

Mr. Etter said the District is making a "diligent effort" to rectify the problem of vacated and abandoned properties, and is keeping the fire department informed so that they can make the right decisions should fires break out at these locations.

But Todd Zirkle, whose town house is down the street from the N Street property, said the city is not doing enough.

"This is a huge problem," he said. "The fact is that it really hurts the houses on the block, because if one of the houses is vacant, it can really mess things up."

The Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs administers the list of nuisance properties. According to its most recent statistics, the District had 3,970 abandoned taxable properties in 1999.

Gina Douglas, public information officer for the DCRA, would not estimate the latest figures, other than to say they were lower as a result of increased housing sales in the city. The DCRA is undertaking a new study to update its information on vacated properties.

"That's why we need to do the study, because we want to know what the numbers are," Mrs. Douglas said.

The two other fires yesterday morning were two-alarm blazes. The first fire broke out shortly after 7 a.m. at 3306 M St. in Georgetown. It was a kitchen fire at Afghan Cuisine resturant that began when two refrigerators short-circuited.

The second fire was at Evangel Missionary Baptist Church at Rhode Island Avenue and Jackson Street NE. Mr. Etter said the fire began in the basement, but like the N Street fire, the cause was unknown because of structural concerns.

"They have a little bell tower that is three stories high, and the top floor has already sunk in," Mr. Etter said. "I am not an insurance adjuster, but I would say that damage to the building is pretty complete."

Other than a sprained ankle suffered by one of the firefighters, no injuries were reported at either site.

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