At an unholy hour on the morning of June 25, Katie Gandy's roommate burst through the front door with some unwelcome news: An upholstered chair was burning on the porch of their Fishburne Street home.
They doused the fire with a garden hose and buckets of water from the kitchen sink, putting it out in 10 minutes. At first they did not call the fire department, thinking that one of their college-student neighbors had accidentally started the modest blaze with a cigarette.
But patterns started to emerge in Gandy's mind as she heard about other suspicious house fires clustered around the Crosstown Expressway, most of which started with flammable objects on porches. The fires are reminiscent of a series of suspicious house fires in 2009, when someone started fires on downtown porches using couches, loose trash, and papers in a recycling bin.
There have been five downtown house fires since June 25, four of which were deemed intentional by the fire department. Since 2003, there have been 57 suspicious house fires on the peninsula.
Eventually, Gandy, a City Paper contributing photographer, contacted the fire department to report the flaming-chair incident. Even though it was minor compared to some of the past month's infernos, it frightened Gandy so badly that she immediately packed up her external hard drives — which contained her valuable professional photography — and sent them to her parents' house for safekeeping.
After the fire, Gandy's sense of security was wrecked. The old white chair, charred black with a smell reminiscent of barbecue, lingered like an apparition on the porch for a few days and made her jump every time she walked past it. She could scarcely sleep at night, knowing that most of the fires were started between 3:30 and 5:30 a.m.
"I hear a noise, and I'm like, 'Something's on fire, something's on fire, I know it,'" Gandy says. On July 13, she moved out of the house.
Fire department officials have been tight-lipped about their investigation of the recent spate of downtown fires. A 16-member task force is on the case, including members from the Charleston Fire Department, Charleston Police Department, South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. said at a press conference Thursday that the investigators were counting on downtown residents like Gandy to come forward with previously unreported suspicious activity.
Riley also announced a $25,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and prosecution of a downtown arsonist. The announcement came after yet another fire charred the two-story porch of a house at 54 Cannon St. around 4:30 a.m. Thursday.
Allison Hammons had just moved into the house's downstairs apartment with her roommate, fellow College of Charleston student Callie Badgett, on June 1. As houses started catching fire in the neighborhood, several with college students inside, Hammons began to realize she was taking a risk by living there.
"There are a lot of college students in this area, so you kind of just hope and pray that it won't be you," Hammons says.
Mike Sullivan, Hammons' neighbor, ran from next door with his roommate to spray the porch with a fire extinguisher Thursday morning. He had seen the orange glow of the fire from his bathroom window and grabbed his bed comforter on the way out the door to catch a 50-pound dog as his neighbors heaved it over the second-floor porch railing. The upstairs neighbors escaped by shimmying down a porch column.
"I honestly thought somebody could die," Sullivan says. Hammons says the fire came within a foot of a gas-powered water heater.
Charleston has a long history of fires, though most have not been linked to arson. A 1698 fire brought down 50 buildings, or one-third of the city. A 1788 fire destroyed the State House, then in Charleston at Broad and Meeting streets. Other major fires occurred in 1798, 1838, and 1861. Although firefighting has improved in the intervening centuries, Katherine Saunders of the Historic Charleston Foundation says many of the city's risk factors remain the same.
Saunders, the Foundation's associate director of preservation, says houses were packed "cheek to jowl" when Charleston was a walled city. Most of the first Charleston houses are gone — many of them burned, in fact — but property lines have stayed largely the same, and the close proximity of houses can lead to chain reactions, which happened June 30 when a fire at 247 Rutledge Ave. caused serious damage to a house next door.
"If you had a wooden building and you were next to your neighbor, you had an out-of-control situation very quickly," Saunders says. After the 1698 fire, Saunders says, the city encouraged homeowners to build with bricks; after another fire in 1740, the city passed an ordinance requiring all new buildings to be built with brick or stone. The ordinance was largely ignored.
Some more recent building practices are dangerous as well, Saunders says. When Charleston builders were required to replace old wood roof shingles, many of them cut corners by simply covering the shingles with metal. When Hurricane Hugo battered Charleston in 1989, it peeled away some of the metal sheets, revealing still-flammable wood underneath.
And then there is the matter of leaving upholstered furniture on the front porch. Gandy says the old white chair that caught fire at her house was left by a previous owner. Lesson learned? "Don't leave chairs on your porch," Gandy says.
At the Thursday press conference, Mayor Riley also recommended that downtown residents leave their porch lights on so that potential arsonists do not have a dark place to hide while setting a fire. He also urged people to check their smoke detectors monthly and replace the batteries at least annually.
If you have any information that could lead to the arrest of an arsonist, call 1-800-92-ARSON or dial 911. City officials have urged people not to hesitate to report suspicious activity.