Two fires in the MLK Park neighborhood, coming on the heels of nearly a half-dozen residential arsons in downtown Columbia, are rattling residents while investigators work to determine if they are connected.
State Law Enforcement Division investigators were asked to assist both the city police and fire departments in the investigation of two Thursday morning fires at vacant homes in the MLK Park neighborhood, at the request of both agencies, SLED spokesman Thom Berry said. The cause of neither fire has been determined.
The fire department normally does not ask for SLED assistance for fires in vacant buildings, Columbia Fire Marshal George Adams said.
“But based on the circumstances over the last couple of months, we thought that it’s important to make sure we’re using all of our resources,” Adams said.
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Columbia Major Steve Benjamin said the city is working to catch whoever is involved with the fires. One of them – in the Hollywood-Rose Hill neighborhood – killed 80-year-old True Dent Henderson on Sunday. The Columbia Police Department is treating Henderson’s death as a homicide.
“One fire deliberately set is too many,” Benjamin said. “Certainly, if there’s one or more people engaged in this pattern, they need to be held accountable and punished to the fullest extent of the law.”
The most recent set of fires started Thursday morning, when firefighters were dispatched to the 2400 block of Santee Avenue around 4:40 a.m. Responding firefighters saw smoke and flames coming from all sides of the home and through the roof, said Capt. Brick Lewis, spokesman for the Columbia Fire Department.
The blaze destroyed the house, Lewis said. No injuries were reported.
The second fire, in the 1100 block of Pine Street, just blocks away, did not cause as much damage, Lewis said. Firefighters were dispatched around 6:20 a.m. and found the damage was restricted to one room, with smoke damage in a couple of other rooms.
Adams, the fire marshal, said it’s too early to determine if the two Thursday fires are connected to the previous blazes. It was unclear if either home had electricity at the time. Columbia Police Chief Skip Holbrook said the department is reviewing any incidents that have similar patterns.
Joan and John Smith, who have lived on Pine Street for more than 30 years, said they will start watching their street more closely. Joan Smith said she was surprised by the fire, because it’s a quiet neighborhood.
“We hardly ever see anybody,” Smith said. “We’ve never seen a fire in the neighborhood.”
The Smiths said the home that caught fire near theirs has been vacant for months, since a man who was taking care of the house for the owner moved out. But before that man lived there, the house had also been unoccupied for a long time.
There have been fires on the other end of the neighborhood in recent years, started in vacant homes by homeless people seeking shelter.
But Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins said he can’t remember the fire department ever dealing with so many fires in a row.
“It’s very concerning to me, as well, to think that there’s somebody going around starting fires,” Jenkins said. “I can’t recall us having this number of fires like this back to back. That’s really concerning.”
Adams implored residents to “pay attention to their surroundings.”
“There’s nothing too small to report,” Holbrook said. He also asked for patience from citizens who might get asked by officers, some in unmarked patrol cars, where they’re going or what they’re doing.
The department has increased patrols in the South Region, the site of the fires, canvased the neighborhoods and has even looked at people who have been released recently from prison, Holbrook said.
He said he understands the rash of fires is unnerving but that he hopes residents understand police are working on it.
“We’re looking under every rock and stone right now,” Holbrook said. “We’re asking the public to be very vigilant and report anything whatsoever.”