Homeless man accused of starting massive blaze in New Orleans

A New Orleans man was arrested Wednesday when a fire he set to keep warm ended up engulfing a building in flames and forcing the closure of historic Canal Street, the city’s fire chief said.

Darren Denley, 25, was booked on municipal charges of setting fires and crossing police lines, Fire Chief Timothy McConnell said in a statement.

Denley, apparently a homeless man, started the fire that went unchecked for more than two hours. Fox 8 Live reported that it caused a window to break and that’s when an employee in another building noticed the fire and reported it to the New Orleans Fire Department.

The blaze started in a largely empty four-story building and spread to an adjacent building early Wednesday morning. Flames were no longer visible and smoke had greatly diminished in the area by daybreak. Firefighters kept steady streams of water pouring onto the structures from ladder trucks from the street. The fire was declared under control by noon.

"Due to an extraordinary response by the firefighters, this catastrophic fire that had the potential to turn deadly was contained. Numerous shelter facilities are available throughout the city, and people seeking warmth are encouraged to seek shelter at one of these locations when necessary," McConnell said.

Booking photo of 25-year-old Darren Denley.

Booking photo of 25-year-old Darren Denley. (Ouachita Parish Sheriff's Office)

Some of the lanes previously closed on Canal Street reopened Wednesday evening and McConnell said traffic was resuming. Investigators are looking at the stability of the structure and the damages that might result in a chance of direction for upcoming Mardi Gras parades. The 12-day period of celebrations start Friday.

"That sidewalk, that area of the street will be closed through Mardi Gras," McConnell said.

The top three floors of the building were empty. The ground-floor housed small businesses, including a cellphone repair shop and a beauty supply store, but both were closed when the blaze broke out around 3:30 a.m. McConnell said the businesses were heavily damaged and unlikely to reopen anytime soon.

No injuries were reported, and no evacuations were ordered. But some nervous residents of an apartment building around the corner decided to get out amid acrid smoke and temperatures in the 40s.

Resident Michael Mallin said fire alarms in the apartment building went off about 3:30 a.m.

"They told us it was safe to stay," neighbor Kate Otto said. "We decided we needed to get out."

The scene is around the corner from the tony Roosevelt Hotel. It also is near upscale apartment buildings and the Orpheum and the Saenger, ornate early 20th century theaters that were restored to their earlier grandeur after Hurricane Katrina.

But the fire site itself was a largely unused building on a rundown block. "This is a stretch of Canal Street that has not yet seen the level of revitalization of the rest of Canal Street," said Kurt Weigel, president of the Downtown Development District.

The fire department reminded residents affected by the fire that and anyone who is seeking to get out of the cold that there are several shelters available throughout the city and are encouraged to seek one when necessary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.