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Firefighters investigate string of vacant structure fires

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Firefighters are investigating a fire in a vacant house in Nitro, the latest in a string of abandoned structure blazes across Kanawha County.

More than a dozen vacant homes and buildings have burned in the county since the beginning of the year, said C.W. Sigman, county fire coordinator.

"Most of our fires have been vacant properties," Sigman said. "We have lots of vacant houses around the county."

The Nitro fire occurred late Monday.

Firefighters went to the empty Washington Avenue home just after 11:30 p.m. Capt. A.J. Shinn told The Associated Press the fire apparently started in the garage and spread to the attic. No injuries were reported.

Sigman said most of the vacant houses he's seen burn over the last six months have been arsons.

"They were definite arsons," he said. "There's no power to the house and no one is supposed to be inside; you would logically assume it to be arson."

Sigman said most of the vacant houses that have burned have been stripped of copper wiring either before the fire or after. Thieves steal copper wiring to sell as scrap metal.

Firefighters have grown accustomed to battling blazes at empty houses, Sigman said.

He said the area saw an arson spree several years ago when the mines were shutting down. When the mines were booming, houses were being built left and right in the hollows in eastern Kanawha County. As mines closed, workers departed, leaving empty houses behind.

Sigman said some people get rid of vacant houses by burning them down, an illegal action. Firefighters are less likely to try to save a structure if they know it's abandoned, he said.

"If there's nothing to be saved, there's nothing to be risked," he said. "You take a lot of risks to save a life if you have to."

A Pinch firefighter and two paramedics crawled through a burning house in Mink Shoals in April 2012 to pull a woman out of bed. They dragged her out of the house to paramedics waiting outside, but she died at the scene. That fire was ruled arson.

There have been two fatal fires in Kanawha County this year. The most recent was in April when a man was found dead in a chair in an apartment on Charleston's West Side. A lit cigarette was believed to have been the cause. 

A disabled Frame man was killed in a house fire in February. The roof had partially collapsed at the Jakes Run Road home by the time firefighters arrived. The man was found dead inside. Sigman said the man had made statements to others that he did not want to live and had threatened to burn the house down.

He planned on working with other emergency officials and the State Fire Marshal's office on mapping the suspicious fires and those at abandoned structures.

Sigman said residents could help curb the problem by being aware of their surroundings and reporting suspicious activity in and around vacant houses. Suspicious activity can be reported by dialing 911 or the Kanawha Sheriff's Department at 304-357-0169. Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.craig@dailymail.com or 304-348-4850.

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