ATLAS - A suspicious fire early Wednesday morning caused extensive damage to an unoccupied two-story home in the 500 block of West Girard Street and left a neighbor temporarily homeless.

A local fire chief battling the 1:23 a.m. blaze was injured when a five-inch supply line blew off an engine and struck him in the legs.

Mount Carmel Township Fire Marshal and Police Chief Brian Hollenbush, who has ruled the fire suspicious and incendiary in nature, said the blaze started in the middle room of the basement at 524 W. Girard St. and quickly spread throughout the structure, which according to neighbors, hasn't been lived in since last summer.

The fire marshal did not say what evidence was found in the basement to declare the fire suspicious.

Hollenbush said power was still on at the half-double and food and drinks were found inside, indicating someone had been at the house recently.

The property where the fire started is rundown and has debris lying in the front, back yard and rear porch. Neighbors said they have complained about the property to the township code enforcement officer, but claimed nothing has been done to remove garbage, tires and other debris that have accumulated inside and outside the house.

Darryl Walton and his girlfriend, along with Walton's brother-in-law, Andrew Riegel, and his family reportedly were the last people to live at 524 W. Girard St., but currently reside in Shamokin. Neighbors said they seemed to take turns living in the home, which is owned by George Politza, of Gibbstown, N.J.

Hollenbush said he didn't know if Politza is insured.

Dog alerted neighbor

The fire also caused minor fire and heavy smoke and water damage to 526 W. Girard St. occupied by 47-year-old Randy Merlo and his Cocker Spaniel, Oz, who escaped unharmed. Merlo, who has lived in the home for eight or nine years, said he plans to stay with a friend in Atlas until he can return to his home. He grew up only a short distance away from his current dwelling.

Merlo said, "This is a nightmare. All my windows are knocked out, but I guess the firemen had to do that. I appreciate all their help and I'm glad my dog and myself got out safely."

Merlo, who was sleeping on the second floor, said his dog alerted him about the fire.

When asked about the condition of his neighbor's home, Merlo declined comment.

He said he last saw someone at 524 W. Girard St. about two weeks ago. A neighbor told Hollenbush that someone was inside the home Tuesday night.

Merlo rents his home from his nephew, Steve Delbo, of Kulpmont. Hollenbush said Merlo and Delbo are both insured.

Four loud bangs

Greg and Sandra Barkus, who reside at 520 W. Girard St., were sleeping when they were awaken by the fire.

"I was sleeping when I heard this banging," Greg Barkus said. "I thought at first that someone was trying to break into our home, but then I saw the fire truck lights flashing through the windows and spotted smoke outside. The next thing I knew, this place was crawling with firemen, cops, EMTS and ambulances."

His wife added, "I heard four real loud bangs and kept asking Greg what is that. I didn't know what was going on until I saw all the smoke. It's scary and tense when a fire is that close to your property."

Only a vacant lot separates the Barkus residence from 524 W. Girard St.

Other than smelling from smoke, the Barkus home was not damaged.

The couple have lived in their home since August 2001.

Sandra Barkus said, "There is debris all over the place. It's disgusting to have to live like that."

Firefighters brought the blaze under control at about 2 a.m. after battling it from the front, back and sides. They were forced to smash windows on both houses for ventilation purposes and remained at the scene until 4:15 a.m.

PPL employees cut power to both homes.

Firefighter hurt

Hollenbush said Strong Fire Chief Tim Shicowich, who was among several firefighters to respond to the scene, was injured when a five-inch supply line blew off his company's engine and struck him in the legs. Shicowich was transported by AREA Services to Geisinger-Shamokin Area Community Hospital, where he underwent emergency room treatment before being released.

Firefighters from Atlas, Strong, Mount Carmel, Kulpmont and Shamokin battled the fire. Also responding were personnel from AREA Services Ambulance, Mount Carmel Area Rescue Squad and Shamokin Emergency Squad.

Hollenbush is being assisted in his ongoing investigation by Mount Carmel Lieutenant and Fire Investigator Chris Buhay and Shamokin Patrolman and Fire Investigator Raymond Siko II.

Hollenbush said he did not know if Wednesday's fire was connected to a blaze early Friday morning that destroyed two garages in the rear of the 100 block of West Girard Street. The cause of that fire remains undetermined.