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Vacant home fires a ‘sign of the times’

Home foreclosures could be behind increase in suspected arsons

POSTED: December 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Gainesville Fire Marshal and Deputy Fire Chief Jerome Yarbrough looks at an area where a suspicious fire may have started that destroyed a house Dec. 5 on Ridgemont Trace.

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When the smoke cleared after a devastating house fire Dec. 5 on Ridgemont Trace, Gainesville fire investigators had a real mystery on their hands.

Not only were they searching for clues as to how the vacant two-story, three-bedroom home burned, they were searching for an owner. Nearly two weeks later, they still haven’t found anyone who will claim the house.

"Right now it’s not structurally sound," Gainesville Deputy Fire Chief Jerome Yarbrough said of the gutted house, which was about 70 percent engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived early that night. "That’s why it’s kind of urgent to find the owner. It needs to be torn down."

County deed records list Erendira Gaona as the owner, Yarbrough said. Neighbors believe she moved out months ago. The lien holder is a mortgage company in North Carolina.

If the house was in foreclosure, it would be one of several in this transitional neighborhood near Memorial Park Drive and Old Flowery Branch Road. Down the street, a similar house sits empty, discarded belongings strewn on the curb and graffiti on the door.

Officials believe the fire, which melted vinyl siding on an occupied home next door, was caused by a human act. The two prevailing theories are that a homeless person or neighborhood kids started the fire, either intentionally or unintentionally.

"This could be a sign of the times to come," Yarbrough said. He fears that with a deepening recession, more homes left vacant from foreclosures and evictions will be burned by vagrants or vandals. And when firefighters show up, they don’t always know if there are occupants who need rescuing.

"I have concerns because this type of property fire here is the kind that gets firefighters hurt," Yarbrough said. "I expect to see more of these if the economy gets worse."

There have been at least 11 confirmed arson fires in Hall County this year, a slight increase over 2007, Hall County Fire Marshal Scott Cagle said.

So far there has been just one arson case closed by arrest: Two men were charged in a January plot to set fire to a Buford motorcycle shop to collect an insurance payout.

Cagle said the economy could be directly or indirectly to blame for the increase in arsons. Several fires were started in empty homes.

"Anytime there are vacant structures, it’s a concern," Cagle said. "It can be as simple as homeless people trying to stay warm. (But) vacant structures can lead to crimes."

Said Yarbrough, "this is just part of the recession trend on the fire side."

A reward is being offered for information about the fire at 3156 Ridgemont Trace. Anyone with information is asked to call the Gainesville Fire Department at 770-534-7193 or the Georgia Arson Hotline at 800-282-5804.



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