Birmingham is an older city with a lot of aging properties. Birmingham Fire Marshall C.W. Mardis believes we will continue to see more and more vacant buildings in the next few years. These abandoned buildings cause fire hazards, they are a beacon for illegal activity, and they can decrease property values to neighbors.
Earlier this week, the former Saint Paul AFM Church of God burned. The battalion chief on the scene of the vacant church fire said, "We gotta do something concerning abandoned buildings because we're getting a lot of fires." More than 45 fires so far this year, to be exact. Mardis says the city is poised to eclipse the total number of vacant structure fires in 2013, which was 90.
If you're wondering why these abandoned houses and businesses aren't demolished, you're not the only one. Many people complain about the eye sores in the community, but leveling these buildings can be expensive and it takes a long, legal process. Birmingham councilor Kim Rafferty says Alabama makes the rules, not the city. She believes if it wasn't for "home rule" the city of Birmingham could make their own regulations and be more aggressive about abandoning properties. She believes fining property owners would keep more locations from becoming abandoned. However, as it stands, the city has to follow due process. That means it could take years before the city could be granted access to remodel, renovator eliminate structures on these vacant lots. Rafferty says the council can try to keep the abandoned locations "kept up" with mowing and weed abatement. However, even in doing that, there is a legal process because the city can't just walk onto private property.
Birmingham has infused money into public works programs, created the "Mow More" program and are in the process of creating a Land Bank Authority. "They will take that have already been blighted and delinquent for a state-mandated period of time, which can be anywhere from five to seven years .. And we can petition to take custody of that property and from there we can look at marketing the property, redeveloping the property, and trying to get it back to where it's a viable piece of real estate," said Rafferty.
The other issue facing the long list of abandoned properties is the number of fires in them. Mardis reports that 40% are intentionally set. That percentage is made up of arsons, vagrants who may fall asleep with cigarettes, or those using fires as a heating sort. Either way, it is trespassers setting the fires. Mardis and council woman Rafferty say the public has to be the eyes and ears. They suggest calling your council person to report abandoned structures, and then monitoring the location for anyone who is not supposed to be there. If you see something or someone strange, you're asked to call police.
Once a fire is set, it becomes a dangerous situation for firefighters. Since the buildings are often in bad condition, fires can spread to nearby properties, cars or other things in close distance. Mardis also says, "the roof can easily collapse, the floors can easily fall in and injure or trap firefighters."