Gulfport Fire Burns Debris In Vacant Thrift Store

Four Gulfport fire trucks, and a dozen firemen rushed to a burning building on 24th Avenue. Battalion Chief Mark Ballman coordinated the fire teams. He figured the fire started in the vacant building because there "may have been vagrants inside. Lit off what was a pile of debris in the middle of the building."

When that pile ignited, smoke poured through a hole in the building's roof.

The Salvation Army's Rob Vincent was quickly on the scene.

"The first thing that entered in my mind is somebody has gotten into the building again, probably vagrants, homeless people looking to get out of the weather and built a fire to stay warm," Vincent said.

Chief Ballman said that was certainly a possibility. "We have a big problem with that downtown right now," Ballman said.

In fact, the Gulfport Fire Department has been on a campaign most of the winter to get downtown property owners to secure or tear down vacant buildings. Ballman pointed to a building across from the fire damaged warehouse and said, "As you can see, some of these buildings with just plywood over them, it doesn't take much to break inside."

And once they get out of the cold, firefighters and Salvation Army personnel are well aware of the fact that vagrants often look for trash piles like the one in the warehouse.

Based on Major Vincent's assessment, vagrants found the debris pile, "They took part of it and built themselves a fire."

The building that burned used to be the Salvation Army's thrift store. Hurricane damage forced the army to abandon the facility. So nothing of value was inside when the debris started burning.

"No there wasn't thankfully," Vincent said. "We had been slowly taking items out of the building so we could get it ready for the demolition crews to come in."

Those demolition crews were due to arrive in the next couple of weeks. Too late to prevent this fire.

"It's been earmarked for demolition, we're just trying to finalize the contracts, get the contractor hired, and start the demolition on this building and the other buildings that were damaged," said Vincent.

The Salvation Army doesn't have plans for the old thrift store property. But it will reuse the shelter property just south of the fire scene. Salvation Army commanders realize how important homeless shelters are right now, because the city lost all of its living quarters in the 2005 hurricane.

"We haven't finalized how many beds, but we know we'll need 80-100 beds," said Vincent.

No injuries were reported at the thrift store fire. Again, this was the third Gulfport fire in two days. Tuesday morning, a vacant downtown building burned. And that afternoon, smoke poured out of the Furniture Ranch on Pass Road. Investigators are still looking into both fires.