May 15—The house on 24th Street is a shell of what it once was. The double wide has been ravaged by two fires over the last two weeks, leaving nothing but charred remains and the smell of smoke that stubbornly persists.
Months before the fires, the neighbors observed unwanted guests staying on the property. Even after a city raid cleared the home of seven people, the visitors returned.
Scott Stanley, who lives nearby and whose second cousin owned the home until she died last year, could do nothing except urge city officials to do something. Owned by a bank that obtained it through a reverse mortgage, the property was not actively managed.
Even after the city boarded up the home, Stanley said, people quickly moved back in.
"It got to the point where there was clear drug activity and what looked to be like gang activity going on out there," he said. "It was starting to become an extremely threatening situation in our neighborhood."
His neighborhood, Westchester, has been subjected to a series of fires lately. In late April, multiple fires burned trees, fences, at least one parked vehicle and the outside of a home in the span of a few hours one night.
"We're getting to a point in the neighborhood where it's like, 'what's happening here?'" Stanley said. "It's crazy."
The same question could be asked across Bakersfield as a whole. In 2020, the Bakersfield Fire Department logged a significant jump in incendiary fires, or fires set by non-accidental means. The figure rose from 263 in 2019 to 375 in 2020. Fires as a whole also jumped and arson investigators took on 43 percent more cases in 2020 than the previous year.
The increase was enough for BFD to bring it up in a recent meeting before the City Council, where the department proposed its budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
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"We've seen the activity and the call volume at all of our stations fairly rapidly rise every year," Deputy Chief Kevin Albertson said in a phone interview with The Californian. "It's definitely added some challenges when we talk about the call volume increase."
The rise in fires has caused some to point fingers at the city's homeless population. Of all structure fires that occurred in 2020, 35.3 percent involved vacant structures.
Vacant structures typically do not have electricity connected to the property, meaning any fires that occur inside usually are started by somebody.
Sometimes there are fires over and over again at the same abandoned building, creating risks for firefighters and taking resources away from other emergencies that could be happening elsewhere in the city.
One notable example is the Amnesty's building. The east Bakersfield dive bar shut down in 2019 only to be burned at least three times before being demolished.
BFD has stopped short of naming a specific cause for the rise in fires. The department has undertaken a review of the data to hopefully come up with some answers and develop prevention methods.
"Can we nail it down to a certain population? No we can't. The answer is we don't know," Albertson said. "All we do know is we have data to say we have this many incendiary fires, and we are seeing multiple fires in vacant structures."
One potential solution is being tested by the city's Development Services Department. Acting on a City Council referral, the department is developing a receivership program to take control of abandoned properties.
Under the program, the city would obtain a court order to assign a property to an independent receiver. Once in receivership, the city could then use the equity of the home to build improvements.
The new program has just gotten off the ground, and the city plans to test the concept on a property it is preparing to take before a judge.
"We are looking at ways that we could better address those repeat offenders, for lack of a better term," said Department Director Chris Boyel. "We expect to be doing a trial receivership here in the next six months or so, and seeing whether we can develop positive outcomes as it relates to rehabilitating or repurposing these properties so they are not a blight."
At six months before the test might begin, receivership may seem like a long way off. For residents such as Stanley, the city's current efforts have been less than acceptable. He hopes the city will soon take a more active role in mitigating the risks.
"As soon as people see a boarded-up house, that's an invitation to take down the boards," he said. "At what point in time does the city have an obligation to the citizens of this community and the safety of our neighborhoods to basically shut these things down?"
You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.
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