By Adam K. Thiel
I wish I could say that I'm surprised by this story, but I'm not.
In addition to being increasingly concerned about people living in otherwise vacant residential buildings, now we must also worry about the risks of people living in improvised structures, self-storage units, commercial/retail properties, and pretty much anywhere else you can imagine.
My own department recently fought a fire in what was once a large "urban" chicken coop (something we're also seeing more of) that was being illegally used as a dwelling unit for several people. Once you add carpet remnants and cast-off furnishings to any wooden structure of any kind, you can have a substantial fire load and a definite life-safety and exposure problem.
This trend brings to mind the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression, the favelas of Brazil, and the shantytowns we often associate with third-world countries. But the problem exists here and now, throughout the United States.
For fire departments, the solutions will sound familiar: constant area familiarization (know your streets, know your buildings, know your communities); pre-incident planning; training for the uncommon incidents (i.e., practice assembling/advancing attack lines that will reach through, around, and beyond your typical structure); continual size-up (including a 360-degree lap of the building whenever possible); and heavy involvement in fire- and building-code enforcement efforts.