EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

October 3, 2012

Fewer fires, but more arsons in city

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.

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