Porch fire on Spring Street: Arson or accident? 

December fire could have been started by a stray cigarette

The only visible signs of the fire that started on Jessica Wiley's porch are a scorched metal bucket used for cigarette butts and an ash outline on the wall.

Paul Bowers

The only visible signs of the fire that started on Jessica Wiley's porch are a scorched metal bucket used for cigarette butts and an ash outline on the wall.

Around 3 a.m. on Dec. 27, police and firefighters responded to a fire that broke out on a porch at 51 Spring St. No one was hurt, and the residents managed to put out the fire themselves, but some of the particulars echoed those of the 80-plus suspicious fires that have taken place on the peninsula in the past decade. Alternately, it could have been an accidental fire started by an errant cigarette butt.

Police arrested home remodeling contractor Kenneth Carlton Boone as a suspect in one suspicious fire on Montagu Street in November, but they warned that the long-elusive downtown arsonist (or arsonists) could still be on the loose. Charleston Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh says the 51 Spring St. fire is still under investigation, and when asked in an e-mail if it fit the pattern of the other downtown fires, he said, "I think it may be premature to make that assessment at this time."

But consider the details: Like many of the suspicious fires, this one took place within three blocks of the Crosstown, and it started on a porch. Many of the other fires were started when someone lit a piece of trash or furniture on fire on a porch.

Jessica Wiley, a recent College of Charleston graduate who lives in the downstairs apartment at 51 Spring St. with two roommates, says she emptied some old food from her refrigerator the day after Christmas and put it in a red plastic trash can. When the trash can started "smelling up the kitchen," she says she set it out on the porch next to a metal bucket that her upstairs neighbors use as an ashtray. Some friends visited the apartment that night after the bars closed, and about 30 minutes after they left, Wiley started smelling something foul inside the apartment.

"We thought it was originally the heater, so we turned that off," Wiley says. "Then after a couple of minutes of the smell not going away, I was like, 'Oh my God, something's on fire.' So I opened the front door, and the whole trash can was in flames."

Wiley says the three-foot-tall can had melted down to its base by this point, but she was able to quench the flames with a bowl of water from the sink. Her verdict? It was probably an accident. She did ask her visiting friends about it, and while they are smokers, they said they hadn't dropped a cigarette on the porch.

Wiley says she had heard about the string of fires downtown, but she wasn't concerned about her apartment. "I didn't think, honestly, that it was in our area that the arson was active," she says, "but apparently from talking to the cops, they did say that we're in that area."

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