Worry runs high in fire-stricken neighborhoods

By Gabriel Rom

Residents in Forest Hills and Rego Park are on edge after a rash of fires that the FDNY has deemed “suspicious.”

“Nobody has been hurt yet. But it’s only a matter of time,” said a woman who only gave her name as Suzanne. “This doesn’t happen here,” she added. “This isn’t the South Bronx.”

Judith Harrison, commanding officer of the 112th Precinct, which covers Forest Hills and Rego Park, said at least six of the fires being investigated in Forest Hills in recent weeks have been deemed suspicious. These fires are being investigated jointly by the NYPD and fire marshals from FDNY’s Bureau of Fire Investigation. All of the fires considered suspicious by the FDNY have occurred in buildings which were either being renovated or under construction.

“We are taking it very seriously,” Harrison said at a community council meeting Nov. 18.

According to police, the first of the recent fires occurred Oct. 20 at the former Parkway Hospital, which has been vacant since 2008. Since then five other blazes have occurred. On Nov 8., a massive three-alarm fire burned one home to the ground and severely damaged two others near 112th Street in Forest Hills.

Echoing what many residents have said, Bob Kinney, a Forest Hills native who lives nearby, said that he had “never seen a fire so big — the whole thing was engulfed in flames.”

On Nov. 10 an electrical fire broke out at a house under construction at 108-13 67th Rd. The FDNY reported that there were no victims.

On Nov. 15 a suspicious fire occurred at 112-35 69th Rd. No injuries were reported.

On Nov. 16, a trash fire erupted in a construction site at 65-07 Woodhaven Blvd. The call came in at 7:29 p.m. and the fire was brought under control at approximately 8:07 p.m. Sixty firefighters responded to the scene. Officials said there were no injuries.

On Nov. 18 another blaze tore through a home that is under construction at 108-43 66th Ave., only seven blocks away from the fire that had burned down the building under construction Nov. 8.

While the causes of the fires remain a matter of speculation, the one constant throughout the quiet communities of Forest Hills and Rego Park is anxiety.

“I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s a good neighborhood,” said a man who gave his name as Roman and has lived in Rego Park for 30 years. “This is just…weird.”

The area has seen a flurry of construction in recent years.

“I think these fires are a message: Do not build big houses,” said a man who only gave his name as Jacob and who lives near one of the burned-down homes.

“Some people don’t like the idea of immigrants changing the style of this neighborhood,” he added.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, an influx of Bukharian Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan have made the Forest Hills area their new home.

Tensions have surfaced between Bukharians and longtime Forest Hills residents in recent years, over the future of the neighborhood’s housing stock, with the Bukharian community favoring larger houses.

In 2009 the Department of City Planning adjusted zoning requirements for the Cord Meyer section of Forest Hills in an attempt to limit “out of character” buildings and to maintain the “prevailing scale of neighborhood buildings.”

The new regulations tempered, but did not appear to have solved, the long-simmering debate between the two communities over the size of newly built houses.

“Many of these homes are connected,” said the woman who went by the name Suzanne. “This is a tragedy waiting to happen.”

Reach reporter Gabriel Rom by e-mail at [email protected]cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4564.

More from Around New York