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Ponder Avenue house fire left a total loss, owner says

With the house his grandfather built a total loss, homeowner James Ward says he needs "all the help I can get."

Blackened trees stand above the charred remains of James Ward's house at 1013 Ponder Ave.
Blackened trees stand above the charred remains of James Ward's house at 1013 Ponder Ave.
Photo by Andrew Warfield
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The owner of a Sarasota County home destroyed by a three-alarm fire on Monday lost everything, and the 77-year-old Vietnam veteran said he can use any help offered. 

On Tuesday, James Ward stood outside the charred remains of the home at 1013 Ponder Ave. — located in a two-block stretch between Palmer Boulevard and Bahia Vista Street — which he said his grandfather built in 1950. 

He talked about the total loss, which he said included collections of valuable books, antique swords, several vintage cars and even inert artillery shells, the latter which brought personnel from MacDill Air Force Base to investigate.

To say he had a lot of stuff would be an understatement, but he said there is a reason for it.

“I’ve got people calling me a hoarder,” Ward said. “I’m not a hoarder. I pick up scrap metal to get a couple extra bucks. I pick up clothes and shoes and household items to distribute to needy families. I've been doing that for almost 40 years, helping people out in the community.”

James Ward stands outside his destroyed home at 1013 Ponder Ave.
Photo by Andrew Warfield

Ward’s collection had been a source of conflict with Sarasota County for several years, he said. The county cited him for violations in 2016, cleared the property in 2017 and cited him in 2023 for improper outdoor storage of items. Improper, Ward said, because the county has previously torn down his garage.

Ward was not at home when the fire started. Crews were able to contain nearly all of the damage to the tree-covered lot at the corner of Ponder Avenue and Alta Vista Street. Across Alta Vista, the tiny Iglesia Menonita Seguidores de Cristo church emerged unscathed. Melted vinyl soffits were the only damage visible on one adjacent house. 

As investigators sifted through the smoldering debris beneath blackened trees behind him, Ward took the opportunity to air his grievances with the county.

“When I got out of the military, I had trouble with the county. I had a friend who used to work for the county, and he told me that they had two guys down here who had a vengeance to get me,” Ward said. “They’d come around every week and spy on me like I'm some kind of a druggie, a criminal. They’d climb my fence and take pictures inside.”

Firefighters drag more hoses toward the house to contain a fire that broke out shortly before noon Feb. 12.
Photo by Lesley Dwyer

Ward said he isn’t certain about how the fire started but said neighbors told him they saw it start in a ditch along the edge of the lot. The investigation has been turned over to the State Fire Marshal’s Office. Regardless of the cause, Ward is left to figure out how to go on. 

“I don't know. I'm going to clean the lot off and put a tent in there until I get some money,” he said. “I'm broke. I live on about $1,000 a month with a little bit of VA pay and my Social Security plus what I can scrounge up on the side. I've been doing that for quite a few years.

"I need all the help I can get."



Andrew Warfield

Andrew Warfield is the Sarasota Observer city reporter. He is a four-decade veteran of print media. A Florida native, he has spent most of his career in the Carolinas as a writer and editor, nearly a decade as co-founder and editor of a community newspaper in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina.

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