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Eyewitness News Investigates: Squatter Fires

Vacant buildings throughout Fresno are popular hangouts for the homeless.
Eyewitness News investigates fires in vacant buildings.  The Fresno Fire Department says squatters are usually to blame, and the rate goes up when the weather turns cold.  

Fresno firefighters bust through a steel door to get to a fire in the old JC Penny building on the Fulton Mall.  The November incident is the second one since July, and the fire department believes squatters caused them.

They're trying to get out of the cold and most of the time they need an open flame device to either see with, heat themselves with, or to cook with and it just doesn't take much for those open flame devices to start a fire," said Koby Johns, public information officer for Fresno Fire Department.

Johns thinks the homeless are getting inside through the back windows, which are easy to push open, if you can reach them.  Boxes attached to the wall have been removed and barbed wire was installed days ago to try and keep people off the fire escape. 

Eyewitness News walks the perimeter of the old Del Monte building downtown, which caught fire in October.  It's a homeless hang out.  We found one woman using an electrical box as a bedroom. 

Johns says fires in abandoned warehouses are dangerous for firefighters, and the risks multiply when they have to go inside.

"Recently there was one in New York, about ten years ago, and a number of firefighters lost their lives and they were in a building just like this. They were searching for homeless people that were inside," said Johns.

The fires aren't just happening in buildings downtown.  This map shows 12 major blazes in vacant homes and businesses in October and November, all over the city.  Earlier this week two homeless people staying in an empty house on Fountain Way narrowly escaped after an ex-boyfriend set it on fire in the middle of the night.  Neighbors are concerned for their safety and say that homeless people are always around.

"It seems like you need 24 hours protection because people are coming by 24 hours a day," said homeowner, Joe Romero.

Even though this home is now severely damaged, history shows squatters may be back.

A firefighter's helmet camera video shows this Tower District home burning to the ground last year.  But just two weeks ago there was another fire down in the basement.  The fire department says people cut through the chain link fence and crawled through the open spaces under the home.

Kate Borders of the Downtown Fresno Partnership says break-ins go up when the weather cools down.

"We definitely see an increase in homeless individuals who are desperate for a warm place to be," said Borders.

While so-called "ambassadors" canvas downtown and point out susceptible areas to property owners, Borders says there's only one sure way to prevent squatters and the problems they create.

"The best way to avoid someone breaking into a vacant property is for it not to be vacant.  So we encourage property owners to start construction," said Borders.

The owner of the JC Penny building says he's wants to start renovating in the next few months, but even then he worries his construction materials will be stolen overnight.
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Fresno, CA

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