In the past four years, there have been 34 fires in the neighborhoods of Cedar Rapids that were swamped by flood waters in 2008. 

Those 34 fires in the Cedar Rapids flood zone have been reported in all kinds of structures: stand-alone homes, apartments, detached garages and sheds. Greg Buelow of the Cedar Rapids Fire Department says a majority of the fires were in abandoned dwellings.

“They’ve really happened in all quadrants of the city that were in flood-inundated areas,” he says.

There’s no common reason for the fires.

“We confirmed that in one particular case a fire was started because a guy was trying to extrapolate copper,” Buelow says. “In another particular circumstance a guy was apprehended trying to set a house that was under construction that had been flood damaged. He set the porch on fire. In another one some children were playing with candles…got charged with reckless use of fire because it got out of control.”

Buelow says officials were bracing for even more fires.

“We contacted other communities that were devastated by a natural disaster and had a large stock of abandoned and vacant homes and they said one of the issues that your department really needs to be on the look-out for is a series of fires,” Buelow says.

In September of 2010 in Detroit, for example, fires destroyed more than 80 homes in just one night, most of them abandoned properties. Cedar Rapids officials talked with fire departments in other cities that had suffered natural disasters, like hurricanes, and saw a dramatic rise in fires, primarily in abandoned properties.

“They would tell us that 34 of them seems like a lot, but for them, that would have been a manageable number,” Buelow says.

So far this year, investigators have classified eight fires in the Cedar Rapids flood zone as suspicious. Cedar Rapids police and fire fighters are urging people who’ve stayed in the flood zone to keep an eye out for suspicious activity in the vacant and abandoned properties.

“We really need people to be proactive and call us and let us know what’s going on so that maybe we can reduce the liklihood of this being a nuisance,” Buelow says.

About half the abandoned properties in the Cedar Rapids flood zone are now owned by the city.