Arson again: Firefighters fan out to warn, and educate, residents

Deputy Fire Marshal Rick Anewalt (from left) and firefighters Matt Dunn and Devin Keber went door-to-door along Rutledge Avenue Tuesday, letting residents, including Brittany Ambur, know how to minimize their risk of fire and to see if anyone had information on fires in the area, including a blaze last week at the intersection of Rutledge Avenue and Bogard Street.

One of two peninsular Charleston house fires reported on the same morning last week has been confirmed as having been intentionally set, further fueling speculation that a serial arsonist may once again be at work in the city.

Charleston Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh on Tuesday said a small fire on a porch Thursday morning at 563 Rutledge Ave. was intentionally set, adding it to the more than 50 questionable fires that have plagued peninsular Charleston in recent years, many of which originated on easily accessible porches.

In this newest confirmed arson, the tenant reported finding a charred white blanket on the first-floor porch. Some of the railings were burned, but no damage was done to the main structure.

The site is a few blocks north of where a massive fire destroyed a home at 247 Rutledge Ave. on the same day. Houses near the huge blaze, which was at the intersection of Rutledge Avenue and Bogard Street, also were damaged.

While no one was injured in either fire, the cause of the destructive blaze remains under investigation, and finding clues is expected to take some time. The building is a collapsed hulk of burned timbers and brick, while at least four burned-out cars and one motorcycle damaged by the flames are still on the scene.

At least two other small, but questionable, fires noted in the past two weeks apparently went unreported. Reports on those fires could have contributed to the ongoing investigation, Julazadeh said.

Charleston's arson streak seems to have started around 2002, and has come in waves, with the last wave of arsons in 2009.

The possible re-emergence of a serial arsonist brought firefighters out into the neighborhood Tuesday night as they tried to get the word out on the dangers of fires, along with a plea that residents report all suspicious activity.

Splitting up into four teams, firefighters fanned out from Rutledge and Bogard, knocking on doors in every direction in a neighborhood canvass that took about two hours.

At every door, even when there was no answer, firefighters left a bright orange fire safety notice that was printed in response to the recent fires. The notice urged residents to be careful about leaving combustible items outside their homes or on porches.

At one house on Rutledge, an almost empty plastic gasoline container was found on a front porch amid a number of combustible items.

"This is generally not a good idea," Fire Capt. Rick Anewalt said as he held up the gas can for all to see. No one was home, so firefighters stuck one of the fire safety bulletins into the gas can's handle, and put it at the front door, where the tenant couldn't miss it.

At another house on Rutledge, they found a heavily upholstered couch sitting outside, against the siding and directly underneath a second-story wooden porch.

Anewalt said it was a perfect example of what not to do. "If that couch caught fire, by the time the Fire Department got here, the whole side of that house would be gone," he said.

As they canvassed the neighborhood, firefighters also offered to install smoke detectors and to make sure smoke detectors had working batteries.

Julazadeh said his office is working with insurance investigators to determine the cause of the 247 Rutledge Ave. blaze. The fire followed the same pattern seen in recent years of fires beginning near or on front porches in the middle of the night, and in a home occupied by college students.

One witness to the blaze said Tuesday that the inferno took off so fast that no more than 10 minutes passed between the time it was reported and the house being fully engulfed.

Tim Holford, a rising College of Charleston senior, lives across from the burned home. The heat was so great that he said he felt like he was standing right in front of a bonfire, even as the blaze was more than 50 feet away.

While the 563 Rutledge Ave. blaze did not turn into much, it was in a location that provided some cover by way of a small alley or divide between the adjacent home.