Rash of small fires unsettles Schenectady residents

No connection yet between students and fires
Schenectady firefighters Courtney Breslin and Lt. TJ Dercole work to extinguish a small debris fire in Center Alley Tuesday.
Schenectady firefighters Courtney Breslin and Lt. TJ Dercole work to extinguish a small debris fire in Center Alley Tuesday.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

SCHENECTADY — City residents are becoming increasingly rattled by a budding serial arsonist setting fires in broad daylight. 

Homeowner Peter Heinegg stood by as investigators poked at the ashes of a small fire that scorched his garage door on Tuesday afternoon.

Suspects squirted lighter fluid on a plastic garbage can lid, he said, but wet leaves prevented the conflagration from spreading. 

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” Heinegg said. 

Ground zero is the series of alleyways in the city’s Upper Union Street neighborhood. 

Authorities doused at least four blazes shortly by 1 p.m. on Tuesday. But even as officials investigated one site on West Alley, the number appeared to morph throughout the day. 

“It may be five or six now,” said Assistant Fire Chief Don Mareno said Tuesday afternoon. 

The lanes — East, West and Center Alley — run parallel to main thoroughfares in neighborhoods southwest of Schenectady High School. 

But the tree-lined thoroughfares provide fodder for firebugs through a combination of partially-hidden garages and trash cans awaiting pickup. 

Officials described the fires as small, nuisance-type fires, such as rubbish, bags of leaves and personal belongings being stored in garages. 

While the alleys serve as popular student thoroughfares, and the city school district allows students to leave campus for lunch, authorities stopped short of drawing a formal connection. 

“Our investigators are working with Schenectady Police Department and ATF,” said Deputy Chief Doug Faulisi.

The Schenectady Arson Task Force previously solicited public assistance earlier this month.

The fires initially began 18 months ago and sputtered out, said Faulisi, but there’s been a resurgence in the past two weeks. 

Previous locations have included East Alley between Rugby Road and The Plaza. 

Those blazes happened after school was dismissed, authorities said. 

None of the fires have previously caused structural damage until Tuesday.

“This makes you think about what comes next,” Heinegg said. “I hope this is the beginning and end of whatever is going on here.”

Nearby, Ann Mare was unaware of a blaze in her backyard until a passerby banged on her door at about 12:30 p.m. 

Officials doused it before it spread to the garage, which is full of her late mother’s possessions.

“It’s a bad spot, the alleys,” Mare said, citing additional problems, including vehicle break-ins, speeding and other adolescent antics. 

Some said the issues appear to be escalating. 

Glenwood Avenue resident Kate Clifford questioned the school’s open-door policy, and said discussions are raging on NextDoor, the social networking app for local neighborhoods.

“People are beside themselves,” Clifford said.

The 12309 Neighborhood Association discussed strategies for quashing the behavior on Tuesday night. 

“Kids are throwing rocks at peoples’ dogs, loitering — the list can go on and on,” said 12309 Neighborhood Association President Rima Cerrone. “We need to come up with something to start addressing this because it’s getting worse and worse.”

Cerrone also expressed concerns about students allegedly breaking into vacant property at the corner of Sumner Avenue and Rugby Road.

Schenectady City School District is aware of the fires and is working with city police to determine if any students are involved. 

“We see who is and isn’t in class, and listen to what the kids are saying in school,” said district spokeswoman Karen Corona. 

The district also deploys engagement teams into the community after an incident, and encourages residents to call the school in the event they see any suspicious activity.  

“We don’t want to assume it was kids, but we do what we can,” Corona said. “We work hard to be good neighbors and partner with those around the school.”

City police are also boosting their presence in the neighborhood. 

“We have put additional patrols in the area,” said city Police Sgt. Matthew Dearing. “I don’t believe anyone has been detained yet.”

Despite the neighborhood chatter, some residents remain unaware of the issues. 

A woman steered her SUV into her driveway and said she just moved to the neighborhood. 

“Welcome to Schenectady,” she shrugged.

Anyone with information about the fires is asked to call the task force at 518-382-5141 ext. 5815.

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