Few to blame after three dozen fires in the flood-ravaged areas of Cedar Rapids

'Opportunities are diminishing' for suspicious fires, officials say

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Firefighters are finding hope in an investigation that has dragged on for more than four years.

About three dozen vacant homes, sheds and businesses near the Cedar River have gone up in flames since the flood of 2008. Two people have been arrested in connection with two of the fires, but over the past few years, investigators have mostly been left with no one and nothing to blame.

“A lot of people tell me, it’s almost like another dagger to see somebody burn it, too,” Cedar Rapids Fire Department spokesman Greg Buelow said. “Isn’t it enough that it was flooded?”

In 2012, records from the fire department show there have been 11 suspicious structure fires. Officers have not made any arrests related to those fires in the vacant, abandoned or unsecured structures in the flood zone. Investigators are looking into many of them as possible arson cases.

People have developed theories that a homeless person, a group of kids or an arsonist started the year’s fires, but investigators haven’t found any truth to those. Crews simply don’t know if somebody intentionally set the fires or if someone was inside and lost control of a fire they had started to cook or stay warm.

Steve Hauk lives just behind one of the biggest flood-zone fires of the year. On June 24, his neighborhood filled with smoke when flames consumed the old flood-ravaged lumber mill along Sixth Street SW. The blaze left him with $6,000 worth of damage to his property.

“I looked out the window and it was like glowing in day light and it was, huge, 17 feet tall,” said Hauk, who thinks the fire was set intentionally.

City leaders, however, are gaining confidence the next couple of years will be much kinder to those living along the Cedar River.

“If somebody has ill intent, the opportunities are diminishing,” Buelow said. “They are not going to go out there.”

Authorities at the center of the recovery effort believe flood victims will see fewer suspicious structure fires. About four months have passed since the last fire at the end of June.

Cedar Rapids Flood Recovery and Reinvestment Director Joe O’Hern said the city has caught up with demolishing properties acquired through the buyout program.

“We have about 200 parcels left to go through the process,” O’Hern said. “They could be anywhere from they have submitted their application, to having completed the acquisition part of the process and now we’re determining whether we’re going to dispose of them, whether we are going to demolish or try to sell them as is.”

More than 1,000 flood-damaged buildings have already come crashing down at the hands of a demolition crew. While the outlook is hopeful, the relief that comes with figuring out who or what started the 2012 fires would be even better, according to investigators. As the number of remaining buildings scarred by river water continues to dwindle, investigators are still left looking for the cause of the fires.

“There’s never been any question -- the Fire Department is not giving up,” Buelow said.

Whatever is behind the flood-zone flames, flood and fire victims, like Hauk, are ready to be done with the disasters.

“I hope it comes to an end because most of the demolitions are done,” Hauk said. “I don’t know what the future will hold, but hopefully I’m done with my bad luck.”

Fire investigators ask anyone with information to care the Arson Hotline to leave an anonymous tip at 1-800-532-1459.

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