San Antonio Fire Department responding to more vacant structure fires

SAFD is seeing an average of a 10% increase each year for fires happening in vacant structures

SAN ANTONIO – Six months after a house fire and getting back on their feet, Maria Lozano and her family are facing homelessness again.

“They said nothing survived — no apartments, and we lost everything,” Lozano said.

Their new home is gone. A fire in the vacant house next door spread after being carried by the winds of a tropical storm.

“Fast, it burned fast,” Lozano said.

A month earlier, in July, Victor Villarreal feared a similar fate.

“The fire department shows up, and next thing you know, that house was fully engulfed. Man, they couldn’t do nothing about it,” said Villarreal, who lives near several vacant homes.

A massive fire in a vacant two-story home on West Poplar was too close for comfort.

“It’s been going on. I was here three months ago. They burned the house next door,” Villarreal said.

Vacant structure fires increasing

Data collected by SAFD shows an increasing problem with vacant structure fires.

“We know that our fire behavior is up in these vacancies,” San Antonio Fire Chief Charles Hood said.

In 2021, 16% of the 546 fires SAFD responded to were in vacant structures, including homes and commercial buildings.

The next year, that percentage jumped to 26%.

As of July 31 this year, 29% of SAFD’s fire calls were for vacant structures.

“I think a lot of it has to do with temperature with the unhoused population,” Hood said.

Chief Hood said unsheltered people went inside vacant buildings to get out of the cold years ago.

“Now we have vacant buildings in this city where people have gotten in, and it’s like a commune in there, and they’re staying out of the heat now,” Hood said.

This vacant apartment complex on SW 36th Street caught fire on Aug. 6.

Dozens of firefighters responded to keep the fire from spreading to the whole block. SAFD believes unsheltered people started it.

“Upwards of 60 to 80 people out there in the middle of the day in the heat. That same amount of people had to respond to another two-alarm fire later on that evening,” the chief said.

Keeping firefighters safe

When fires start, safety is at the top of mind.

Many of these vacant buildings around the city are structurally unstable, making it dangerous for firefighters to go inside.

SAFD is working with the city’s development services department to clearly identify dangerous buildings with 4x4 placards.

“It tells us the structure has been identified as unsafe by fire prevention and safety,” Hood said.

They’re also making these tactical concern reports so crews know the best and safest way to respond.

“To have all of this information where the plugs are, where the exposures are, is going to really help you at three in the morning,” the chief said.

Hood said these reports will save lives when it comes to dangerous and vacant buildings.

But these are just band-aids to a multi-pronged problem.

“It’s going to take everybody to kind of solve this. But in the meantime, we have to be safe while everybody else, including us, is trying to figure that solution out,” Hood said.

SAFD is working closely with Development Services on the placard program to identify dangerous buildings.

An open records request shows there are over 11,000 identified vacant, overgrown, or dangerous structures in the city.

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About the Authors:

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.