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NIAGARA FALLS – A rash of nuisance fires in garbage totes has prompted city police and fire investigators to launch a joint investigation.

The problem escalated Sunday night when one of the fires spread to a two-family home on Whitney Avenue.

Two adults and three children at 2401 Whitney Ave. were helped by the Red Cross after the fire in the garbage tote spread to the vinyl siding and inside the house via a broken window. The fire caused $5,000 in damage to the house and $1,000 in damage to its contents.

Niagara Falls Fire Chief Thomas Colangelo told the City Council on Monday that Sunday’s fire was one in a series of 13 recently in city-owned garbage totes at the rear of houses in alleys in the downtown area between 8 and 11 p.m. He said the fires started in early February.

Colangelo said the heaviest concentration of fires has been in the area of Whitney Avenue to Walnut Avenue, between 18th and 24th streets.

The fire chief said the arsonists are not just burning garbage, but damaging city-owned totes, which raises the level of crime to a fifth-degree arson charge, a misdemeanor. But he said some of these fires have spread to garages and homes, as in the case of Whitney Avenue, which raises the charge to at least fourth-degree arson, a felony.

Colangelo added, “People might think this is just garbage, but the history of arsonists has shown that they start small and work their way up to structures. The last two fires this past weekend have spread to structures, but luckily nobody was hurt.”

He said investigators are counseling people in the targeted area to keep their totes away from the sides of their houses, instead suggesting they be placed in the rear to middle of their yards in order to keep potential fires from spreading. Also totes should not be kept in alleys or in the front of a residence for longer than the allotted garbage removal times, Colangelo said.

Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto said the police department is working hand in hand with the fire department.

“This may seem like a small or trivial problem, but when you total the amount of damage, this brings this to a felony level,” said DalPorto. “We also need help from the public and anyone who sees anything suspicious is asked to contact the police department at 286-4711.”

Colangelo agreed, saying, “The fire and police departments are taking these fires very seriously and will not stop investigating until we find the person or persons responsible for setting these fires.”

Both noted that police have stepped up patrols in these areas since the fires have started.