The Fire Marshal’s Office will return to the scene of a four-alarm blaze on Friday to try and determine why a neglected century-old rowhouse burned down.

Members of the Office of the Fire Marshal have been brought in to investigate because of the suspicious nature of the stubborn fire and the fact that there have been a number of fires in rundown rowhouses on the same block, fire officials told CP24. The structure that burned down Thursday morning was frequently occupied by squatters, officials said.

Firefighters were notified of the blaze on George Street, just north of Dundas Street East, at about 4:20 a.m. It took approximately four hours to bring it under control because the flames spread into the walls and roof.

At the fire's peak, two cats were rescued from neighbourhing homes and people who live in the area were urged to keep their windows closed due to a massive wall of smoke.

The lone injury reported was a twisted ankle suffered by a firefighter who stepped on debris in an alley.

Police will be surveying the scene overnight and the Office of the Fire Marshal will be returning to investigate Friday.

Heavy equipment will likely be brought in to take down part of the roof and one of the building’s walls.

The owner of the rowhouse was not insured and will likely be responsible for covering the cost of the demolition, officials told CP24.

There is currently no estimate on the cost of damages.

Firefighters forced out

When firefighters arrived, the three-storey home's second and third floors and roof were ablaze, so they evacuated at least two neighbouring homes and began a primary search of the burning building, finding no one.

A short time later, firefighters were forced out because of unsafe conditions, said Toronto Fire Services division commander Bob O’Hallaran.

“We had floors that were really sponge, they were being burnt through,” O’Hallaran told CP24’s Cam Woolley.

There were concerns the roof may collapse.

Ten minutes after the first fire crew arrived, the blaze was elevated to a third alarm. Later, the fire was upgraded to a fourth alarm as more firefighters were sent to the scene.

Crews went into a defensive attack, meaning they battled the fire from the outside in an effort to contain it. Firefighters sprayed water on the building from the ground and aerial ladders.

At one point, firefighters removed a propane cylinder from one of the buildings, avoiding the possibility of an explosion.

It took a considerable amount of time to fully extinguish the fire because it spread into the beams of the old structure and into a neighbouring building via a false ceiling.

Two cats rescued, given oxygen

During a search, a firefighter rescued a cat from the second floor of an adjoining building and brought it outside to administer oxygen from a special mask.

A short time later, a second cat was rescued and given oxygen.

Both suffered smoke inhalation, but they had no visible burns as firefighters cradled them.

“They’re hard to find when you go in. They’re scared and they hide,” O’Hallaran told CP24.

Because the street was blanketed with heavy smoke, firefighters gave masks to reporters and camera operators to prevent them from experiencing breathing difficulties.

Heritage buildings disappearing

Local historian George Rust-D’Eye said the vacant rowhouse that burned is a heritage building that was constructed in the 1890s.

A neighbouring rowhouse, partially collapsed, was damaged in a previous fire.

Rust-D’Eye laments the loss of the buildings and said more needs to be done to preserve others on the block before they fall victim to “demolition by neglect.”

He described it as a losing battle because the owners aren’t paying attention to them, restoration work is costly and there is a lack of interest and incentive.

“George Street is not a heritage conservation district, but it should be,” Rust-D’Eye said.

Fires pose a particular threat to buildings of that era, he said.

“It’s a problem because of the construction, they have several layers of walls in them,” Rust-D’Eye said. “The fire gets in behind the walls and they’re difficult to fight.”

City fighting with property owners

City Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam said George Street property owners have been warned to secure their derelict buildings to prevent squatters, drug users and drug dealers from breaking into them.

She said the city is losing its patience with negligent building owners who have ignored the warning, and is attempting to take action.

Wong-Tam said she plans to meet with city officials to come up with a new strategy to keep people out of the properties.

With files from CP24's Cam Woolley

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