Image: Coatesville, Pa., arsons
Tom Kelly IV  /  AP
Firefighters spray water on burning row houses in Coatesville, Pa., late Saturday.
updated 1/26/2009 7:42:09 AM ET 2009-01-26T12:42:09

Authorities are urging residents in this Philadelphia suburb to remove flammable materials from their porches and to keep porch lights on at night following a string of suspicious fires.

The latest fire tore through a block of row houses Saturday, damaging 15 homes, leaving several dozen people homeless and prompting city officials to declare a state of emergency.

At least 30 arsons have been reported since the beginning of 2008, about half of them in the last three weeks. Police said the blazes may be part of a gang initiation, but there was no clear information who was committing the crimes or why.

"This is an arson, no question about it," City Manager Harry Walker said Sunday. Coatesville is about 45 miles west of Philadelphia.

The emergency declaration gives the city powers to deal with the situation without worrying about the budget, such as boarding up the buildings, assigning police to protect them and helping the families involved, Walker said.

'A lot of people are scared'
The newest fire came despite stepped-up police patrols and investigative help from county, state and federal agencies.

"A lot of people are scared," resident Marissa Martinez said as she watched smoke rise from the rubble. "I never thought things could come to this point."

Fifteen homes were damaged and some may have to be demolished, Walker said. Damage was estimated at $1.2 million, bringing the total fire damage since last summer to $3 million.

The southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of the American Red Cross was helping 14 families, a total of 50 people — 32 adults and 18 children, spokeswoman Denise Venuti Free said in a statement Sunday.

One of the homes destroyed belonged to City Councilwoman Robin Scott, who said she and her family got out safely after police officers knocked on doors to alert residents.

"To see it all happen the way that it did was devastating and I wouldn't wish that on anyone," Scott said through tears to a gathering of citizens and city officials Sunday night. She urged residents to be vigilant in their neighborhoods.

Copycat blazes
Police Chief William Matthews said more than one person appears to be involved because of the number of fires and the fact that many have occurred within minutes of each other. He urged residents to remove any potential fuel for the fires and keep their porch lights on.

"It costs 76 cents a week to keep your porch light on," the police chief said Sunday. "That 76 cents should be considered a down payment on the safety of your family and friends in the neighborhood."

Walker said authorities fear that the latest blazes were copycats, since they had already arrested three people in December believed to have been responsible for 15 fires.

"The more we caught them, the more fires were set," he said.

The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on Monday announced it will assist local investigators in the probe.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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