TAMPA — Three fires ripped through vacant houses across the city Tuesday, leaving thousands of dollars in damage and new arson investigations.
Larry Cutler, 53, said he was on the couch when a neighbor came banging on his door to tell him the house behind his was on fire.
"I'm really getting scared," the disabled man said. "The smoke was so thick. I came outside and started spraying my house and my trees with the hose until I couldn't anymore."
Less than 15 feet stood between the burning home and the back of Cutler's house.
Cutler and other neighbors said this is the third time the house at 1704 E 19th Ave. has caught fire in the past seven months. Tampa Fire Rescue reported the single-story, 1930s wood-frame home was the victim of arson — for the third time.
Firefighters got the call at 5:35 p.m. When they arrived, the home — still boarded up from the earlier fires — was 75 percent involved, Fire Rescue officials said. The home, which records show was valued for taxes at $28,000, was vacant.
The flames left enough blackened debris inside the home for firefighters to shovel through. No windows remained from the past fires and no repairs had been made, said Lt. Danielle Spradlin, a Fire Rescue spokeswoman.
"Whoever it is, is an amateur," Cutler said. "The first two times they didn't burn it down."
Authorities have been watching the house from time to time because of the earlier arson, said a neighbor, Ernest Williams, 67.
Investigators have linked more than 20 fires in about a year in and around the V.M. Ybor neighborhood. The two earlier fires at the home — on Oct. 31 and Dec. 8 — were among them.
Spradlin said there is a $7,000 reward for anyone with information leading to an arrest and conviction in the string of arson.
Tuesday's first fire also occurred near the V.M. Ybor neighborhood.
Tampa Fire Rescue responded to the first fire, at 2406 E 20th Ave., around 2 a.m., finding flames coming from the vacant single-story house.
The blaze, which did not spread from the house, caused around $40,000 in damage. No injuries were reported.
However, investigators said they don't believe Tuesday's fire is related to that string of blazes.
Sam Venzeio, a state fire marshal Tampa division spokesman, said he could not reveal how officials reached that conclusion.
Firefighters responded to the second fire around 3:45 a.m. at 414 E. Hamilton Ave. The blaze, extinguished in about 20 minutes, caused about $80,000 in damage. No injuries were reported.
Those fires happened 5 miles apart. Investigators have not determined if they were related. Both were ruled arson.
Times staff writers Katie Sanders, Danny Valentine and Jessica Vander Velde contributed to this report.