ROANOKE, Va. – A devastating fire in Roanoke was recently ruled an accident. The vacant home on 13th Street in Southeast Roanoke burst into flames Tuesday night.
But this is just the latest in a string of blighted homes bursting into flames.
Just last week, a vacant home — this time on Rorer Avenue SW caught on fire.
Fire Marshal Rebecca Smith says Roanoke Fire-EMS department responds to about 70 fires a year. On average, 10 of those are vacant, whether it’s arson or accidental.
“If it’s unsecured anybody can go in,” said Smith. “People can go in and decide they’re going to stay there.”
For those experiencing homelessness, Smith says they might seek shelter in abandoned properties.
“People tend to get cold during the winter months,” said Smith. “They do warming fires, little cooking fires even on the inside.”
The problem has been a recurring issue in Southeast Roanoke for years.
On Bullitt Avenue alone in 2017, a fire at an unoccupied home destroyed or damaged five nearby houses. Then in 2020, a firefighter was injured while responding to a fire at another vacant home. That property was one of 30+ properties owned by the Roanoke Rescue Mission in that part of town.
“A couple years ago, we demolished those homes for this specific reason,” said Kevin Barry, the shelter’s director of marketing and communications.
Barry said they don’t want anyone sleeping in abandoned homes or on the streets.
The shelter is open 24/7 and has lowered its requirements so more people can stay the night. Guests no longer have to attend church services or be sober. However, drug or alcohol use on-site is not allowed.
“Homelessness is a crisis,” said Barry. “If you see somebody sleeping in an abandoned home, please let us know. You can call us.”
Smith says vacant house fires can spread to nearby occupied homes, causing damage or worse. The structures are often neglected and unsafe for first responders to enter. Plus, it’s a cost for taxpayers when fire crews and police need to respond.
Smith is calling on property owners to take action.
“Homeowners who have these structures that are vacant, they need to be secured,” said Smith. “It’s irresponsible to not take care of your property.”