By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE — Fewer fires burned in the city last year than in any of 13 major cities surveyed by the state, but the portion of fires set by arsonists was higher in Lawrence than in the other cities.
Lawrence firefighters responded to 251 fires last year, down from 412 the year before, according to data collected by the city and compiled by the state Division of Fire Safety.
Despite the dramatic drop overall, the number of fires that were deliberately set increased from 25 to 31, the data shows.
The increase made arson the second leading cause of fire in Lawrence last year, behind cooking and ahead of smoking. None of the 12 other cities in the survey – including Boston, Worcester, Springfield and Lowell - ranked arson on its list of the top three causes of fires last year, a statistic that could help revive the reputation Lawrence earned a decade or so ago as the arson capital of Massachusetts.
The only person to die in a Lawrence fire last year – 55-year-old Mariana Novas-Batista – was killed in a blaze in her apartment at the Rita Hall senior housing complex on Hampshire Street that police believe was set by an arsonist.
Thirteen others were injured in fires in Lawrence last year, including eight firefighters, the state report shows. In all, fires caused $2.6 million in property damage in the city last year, down from $6.1 million in 2010.
Fire Chief Jack Bergeron credited the 40 percent drop in fires last year to the state and federal aid that allowed the city to restock the fire department's ranks following the 23 layoffs that occurred in a budget crunch in 2010, which followed about 30 jobs lost to attrition.
The chief also cited increased fire prevention, education, enforcement and investigation.
But he warned that the rows of densely packed wooden tenement houses in local neighborhoods make Lawrence vulnerable to “a potential conflagration” similar to the one that consumed nearly a full block of Parker Street two years ago.
Bergeron also noted that the Engine Co. 8, an Ames Street firehouse, remains closed.
“My hope is that we can continue with our emphasis on prevention, enforcement and education, and that the downward trend will continue,” Bergeron said. “It's important to investigate every fire. It's a fact that investigation is a deterrent (to arson).”
Preliminary data for the first six months of this year compiled by the Lawrence Fire Department suggest that the many of the gains made last year may be reversing. There were 172 fires through June 30, just 79 fewer than in all of last year. Twenty eight were set by arsonists, just three fewer than in all of 2011 and more than in all of 2010.
The good news: no one has died in a fire this year and just three people have been injured, including two firefighters.
Of the 251 fires in all of last year, 127 were in structures, including 80 homes and seven schools or other educational facilities. Another 53 fires were in motor vehicles.
Cooking caused 28 percent of the fires in Lawrence last year. Thirteen percent were set by arsonists, and 11 percent by smokers. Heating systems, clothes dryers and candles set most of the rest. Children set four fires, including one that caused $61,000 in damages.
July was the most flammable month in Lawrence last year, with 35 fires. Tuesday and Thursday went up in flames the most, at 38 fires each.
The report also noted that Lawrence firefighters provided mutual aid to other communities 21 times and received mutual aid just 10 times last year. Following the layoffs two years ago, officials in neighboring municipalities protested that the need for mutual aid in Lawrence would soar.
Among all 13 cities surveyed by the state for fire safety last year, Fitchburg was the most dangerous. At 40,000 people, the city is the smallest of the 13 cities, but its rates of fires (9.7 per 1,000 people) and fatalities (1 in 20,000) were the highest.