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Firefighter's mother has plan to raze fire traps

The mother of Mark Reed -- the firefighter seriously injured battling an arson in a vacant home -- wants the community to help Buffalo demolish the thousands of vacant buildings throughout city.

But tearing down all those empty structures might cost up to $170 million.

So Barbara Reed is suggesting "a mother's cure" for Buffalo's fire traps.

The retired West Seneca teacher is urging corporations, business leaders, contractors, sports figures and concerned citizens to donate money to help the city demolish abandoned structures.

"My son is going to be without a leg for the rest of his life," Barbara Reed said Friday. "I don't want any other mom or family to go through this."

Reed calls it "Take Down a House."

Mark Reed, 36, was fighting an arson June 20 at a vacant Wende Street home when a brick chimney collapsed on him. He suffered severe head injuries, massive bone and muscle injuries, a punctured lung and other injuries. Nine days after the fire, doctors amputated his right leg because of an infection.

City planners have estimated there are between 8,000 and 10,000 vacant buildings in Buffalo. The average structure costs $17,000 to tear down. This means Buffalo would have to spend between $136 million and $170 million to demolish every empty building.

Barbara Reed recently spoke with Mayor Byron W. Brown about the magnitude of the problem.

"After we talked, I thought to myself, 'Golly, it will never get done in my lifetime if we don't get people who have the wherewithal to help,' " she said.

The city has accelerated its demolition blitz, an effort that includes millions of dollars in additional funding from the state. But some firefighters agree with Barbara Reed that even more must be done to address the vacant building problem in Buffalo.

"Drive around here. See what it's like," said Lt. Dan O'Leary, a 15-year Fire Department veteran who works at Ladder 14 at Bailey Avenue and Doat Street. "You'll see five, six, even seven vacant houses in a row on some streets."

And O'Leary said some of these structures can become deadly tinderboxes because they're often filled with debris.

"Sometimes, it's a like a big bonfire, there's so much garbage in them," he said.

Firefighters battled flames in two more vacant structures early Friday. Crews fought 79 fires in vacant buildings from Jan. 1 through June 15. While Reed's injuries have focused attention on the human toll that arsons in empty buildings can take, fire officials said there have actually been about 30 percent fewer blazes in vacant structures this year when compared with a similar period in 2006. The number of all structure fires was down 18 percent, according to Fire Department data.

Two factors compound the dangers of the vacant buildings, O'Leary said. Many vacant structures are next to occupied homes, separated by narrow alleys. Also, firefighters are acutely aware that homeless people and other individuals sometimes stay in boarded up buildings.

"Just because it's a vacant structure doesn't mean it's not occupied," said Capt. Stephen Keohane, who works at Engine 26 on Tonawanda Street. "This makes it even harder for us."

Then there's the problem caused by thieves, who sometimes enter vacant buildings and destroy walls as they seize copper piping and other items. One dismantled wall can pose added dangers during a fire.

Engine 26 is based in Riverside, a neighborhood that had few vacant homes in an earlier era. Firefighter Dan Milovich has lived in Riverside all his life and he said it's alarming to watch as the number of empty structures increases. One building just a block away from Engine 26 was boarded up within the past week.

Milovich thinks the city needs more help from the federal government -- not only to finance demolitions -- but also for additional housing revitalization programs.

"Let's spend more money to help get people their own homes," he said.

Meanwhile, the regional office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has vowed to become an "aggressive partner" with the city in efforts to deal with dilapidated properties. HUD officials have ordered the demolition of a neighborhood eyesore at 439 Gold St., marking what regional HUD Field Office Director Stephen T. Banko III characterized as a more proactive stance in inspecting HUD homes and demolishing structures that can't be rehabilitated.

"If we can alleviate even a little bit of the city's burden by taking some properties down, we'll do it," Banko said.

Fire Commissioner Michael S. Lombardo announced last week that he wants experts to check on all empty buildings, then post warning signs at dangerous sites to alert emergency responders and others to potential risks.

But city officials acknowledge that the real solution is to tear down decaying buildings.

And Barbara Reed continues to mull over strategies for getting the community involved in Take Down a House.

"Maybe I'll get T-shirts made up with lettering that says 'TDAH,' " she said.

Reed is convinced that some people and businesses will consider contacting the city and offering assistance.

"This really is the city of good neighbors," she said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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