Last Saturday night, a few hours before the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue had to battle the biggest fire in its history in Union City, NHRFR firefighters had to deal with extinguishing another suspicious and potentially dangerous blaze in North Bergen.
According to NHRFR co-director Michael Diorio, a four-alarm blaze ravaged four vacant houses slated to be demolished by the state Department of Transportation in coming weeks on Tonnelle Avenue and 31st Street.
The fire has been deemed suspicious, with the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office and the North Bergen police working together to find the people responsible for starting the fire.
However, there is no connection between the North Bergen fire and the three massive blazes which destroyed nearly a full city block on Summit Avenue in Union City - fires that have also been confirmed as arson by fire inspectors and investigators. It was purely coincidence that the series of fires in Union City took place less than three hours after the fire in North Bergen was declared under control, officials said.
"It was a very trying night for all of us," Diorio said. "Moreso on the men who were battling the fires. They had to work all night long and some even suffered injuries in the Union City fire. We never had a night like that, where we had four different fires in two different towns, all with multiple alarms. It's the most we've ever experienced since we've regionalized."
According to Diorio, the North Bergen fire was different than the Union City blazes because there weren't any true occupants to the four buildings damaged by the four-alarm fire, called into NHRFR around 10 p.m.
"Apparently, the buildings were vacant and squatters were living there," said Diorio of the residences at 3114 Tonnelle Ave., homes that were purchased by the state DOT last year and have been slated for demolition as part of the improvements to Tonnelle Avenue and Paterson Plank Road. "Because there was no electric or gas services in the house, investigators believe that the fire was set accidentally by the homeless people who were apparently living there."
The Hudson County Prosecutor's Office questioned two homeless people in connection with the ongoing investigation.
The location has been a problem site for vagrants and the homeless. North Bergen police had responded to at least six different calls at the site involving homeless people causing a nuisance.
Because the buildings were officially unoccupied, it was not determined when the fire officially started or how the NHRFR received the call concerning the fire. However, when the first unit arrived at the scene at approximately 10 p.m., the structure was completely engulfed in flames and a second unit was immediately dispatched, followed by two more units within minutes.
"Because it was an old structure with a lot of debris and was vacant, the building went up rapidly," Diorio said. "Plus, there had to have been a delay in the call being made, because we can't determine how the call was made, probably by a passerby who saw the flames. It wasn't like a resident calling in to say there was a smell of smoke. When our units arrived, it was a fully involved fire that was escalating quickly."
Diorio said that the fire in North Bergen was declared under control at 12:30 a.m. Sunday morning, about 30 minutes before the first alarm was received in Union City.
Diorio also said that it was amazing that there were no fatalities in any of the four North Hudson fires, considering the magnitude of the fires and the rapid fashion in which each fire spread.
"If we were not regionalized, I don't know what would have happened," Diorio said. "Especially with three fires going on in one town at the same time. We were able to get people to all areas to help. We also had one central area, one organized dispatch center that enabled us to get the right people and crews to the right areas. These were all very serious and substantial fires."
A state DOT spokesman said that the fire would not deter the work being done to improve Tonnelle Avenue and Paterson Plank Road. He said the fire-damaged homes should be demolished in the next few weeks in order to speed up the construction of the road improvements.