It was a little after 3 o'clock in the morning last month when Walter Elliott awakened to screams of "Fire! Fire!" The elderly South Memphis resident went outside to find a nearby vacant house engulfed in flames, just one of seven house fires on Lucy Avenue in this year.
"Everyone ran out in the street to watch," said Elliott. "Flames were just flying up in the air. We were afraid they'd blow over to our roof."
By the time the Memphis Fire Department conquered the fire, three occupied homes on neighboring Simpson Avenue had sustained severe damage and the residents had to be evacuated.
The Lucy fires are part of a growing trend of approximately 70 suspected arsons in vacant or abandoned homes in South Memphis, North Memphis, and Orange Mound since the beginning of the year. Though an investigation is under way, fire officials have yet to determine who is responsible.
"I can't recall anything like this ever happening," said Lieutenant Keith Staples, spokesperson for the Memphis Fire Department. "We've had periods where we've had an increase in vacant house fires, but not to this extreme."
Could a firebug be on the rampage? Are mischievous kids to blame?
"We don't have any suspects," Staples said. "It's possible that some could be connected, but we're unable to confirm that."
Staples said there's not much of a pattern connecting the fires. Some start outside the homes. Others are started inside and often in different rooms each time.
"Whoever is setting these fires is doing so indiscriminately," said city code-enforcement manager Johnie McKay, whose office is responsible for demolishing the burned structures. "They don't care whether the property is deteriorated and abandoned or just vacant."
This has Sallie Crawford and Beverly McHenry, next-door neighbors in Orange Mound, worried about their safety. On Monday night, a vacant house on Carnes less than a block away from their homes burned down. "I'm very concerned because there's another vacant house right next door, between mine and Ms. Crawford's," McHenry said.
In some neighborhoods, fire officials have gone door to door to warn residents that vacant homes that could become targets. Once houses have caught fire, the city code-enforcement office is responsible for determining which ones get demolished. Though city demolitions are generally a lengthy process, McKay says they use an emergency demolition process for the vacant houses with the worst fire damage.
"If the director deems the property an immediate safety hazard, we can go ahead and remove it via the emergency demolition process," said McKay. "That's what we've done with about 30 of these."
Demolition costs about $2,500 per home, but the code-enforcement office only has an annual budget of $983,000 for tearing down structures. There are about 1,500 homes on the city's demolition waiting list.