The latest in a string of suspicious fires in this suburban Philadelphia city tore through a block of row houses, heavily damaging 15 homes, displacing dozens of people and prompting local officials to declare a state of emergency.
At least 30 arsons have been reported since the beginning of last year, about half of them in the last three weeks and following three arrests in December. The latest fire came despite stepped-up police patrols and investigative help from county, state and federal agencies.
Authorities believe the blaze was deliberately set.
“This is an arson, no question about it,” City Manager Harry Walker said Sunday.
The flames were reported at about 11:30 p.m. Saturday at the rear of one home and quickly spread to adjacent homes in the Chester County community. One firefighter sustained an ankle injury while fighting the blaze in frigid temperatures, but no other injuries were reported.
Fifteen homes were damaged and some may have to be demolished, and eleven families have been displaced, Walker said. Damage was estimated at $1.2 million, bringing the total fire damage since last summer to $3 million, he said.
The emergency declaration will give the city powers to deal with the situation without worrying about the budget, such as boarding up the buildings, assigning police to protect them and helping the families involved, Walker said.
The southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of the American Red Cross is helping 14 families, a total of 50 people — 32 adults and 18 children, spokeswoman Denise Venuti Free said in a statement Sunday evening. The homes destroyed included that of City Councilwoman Robin Scott, who said she and her family got out safely when police officers began knocking on doors.
The blaze follows a rash of arsons dating as far back as late 2007 in the city about 45 miles west of Philadelphia, including a Thanksgiving Eve fire at a business across the street.
Authorities at a 3 a.m. Sunday news conference said all of the fires have started the same way, with flames set to trash or other items already at the property, in most cases on rear porches where residents store trash cans. Police said the blazes may be part of a gang initiation, but there is no clear information who is committing the crimes or why.
Police Chief William Matthews said more than one person appears to be involved because of the number of incidents and the fact that many occur within minutes of each other.
Walker said authorities fear that the latest blazes were copycats, because they had already arrested three people in December believed to have been responsible for 15 deliberately set fires.
“The more we caught them, the more fires were set,” he said.
Several rewards have been offered in exchange for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever is responsible for the arsons. The Citizens Crime Commission is offering a reward of up to $5,000, and Crime Stoppers is also offering a cash reward.
Authorities are urging residents to remove items from porches that could be used to start a fire and to keep porch lights on at night or install motion detector lights.
“It costs 76 cents a week to keep your porch light on,” police chief William Matthews said at the news conference early Sunday. “That 76 cents should be considered a down payment on the safety of your family and friends in the neighborhood.”
Residents should also make sure smoke detectors are working and that they have planned escape routes. Officials are also seeking volunteers for a new Neighborhood Watch program.
Resident Marissa Martinez fears her home could be next.
“A lot of people are scared,” Martinez said as she watched smoke rise from the scene. “I never thought things could come to this point.”
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