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The Baltimore Sun

The number of deaths in fires was unchanged as Harford fire officials offer tips for a safer 2012

For the second year in a row, three people died in fires in Harford County in 2011.

While there were years when there were fewer than the three fatalities of the past two years, that number is nowhere near the nine fire deaths in Harford County 2007.

The three who died — a Bel Air woman, a young man in Baldwin and a senior citizen in Forest Hill – all perished in house fires.

While the fatalities haven't increased, the number of high-damage fires has increased. Six house fires in 2011 caused damages upward of $400,000 with some reaching into the millions, compared to only four instances of similar amounts of damage in 2010.

The most dangerous fire hazard in winter, according to fire officials, involves fireplaces, grills and other home heating elements.

"The number one issue we've seen a lot of in the last few years is improper disposal of fireplace ashes," Rich Gardiner, a spokesman for Harford County's volunteer fire and EMS companies, said.

Sometimes in the fall and leading into winter, residents continue to use their grills, he said. It's the improper disposal of charcoal and fireplace embers that can cause serious danger.

"What people do is they take these things [charcoal or embers] and put them in paper bags and put them on the deck or in their garage," he said. Those coals or embers can still be smoldering and cause a fire. The proper way to dispose of charcoal or fireplaces embers, Gardiner said, is to put them in a metal structure, saturate them in water and place them away from the home.

Gardiner said he has seen many fires in recent years caused by the improper fireplace ash disposal. In addition, he recommends all homeowners with a fireplace clean their chimneys and have them inspected by a professional to ensure there are no cracks or damage.

In case of a fire, Gardiner strongly suggests each home having a fire escape plan, complete with a place to meet outside. Properly working fire extinguishers and smoke detectors are also essential to being prepared in case of a fire.

The 2011 fatal fires

In February, 44-year-old Kathleen M. Ellis, of Bel Air, died at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air after being rescued from her burning home in the 1200 block of Kirby Circle in Bel Air.

Harford County emergency operations had dispatched the call to Ms. Ellis' home in after a 9-1-1 call disconnected. The female caller said that she "was raped today," then, "he's going to..." before the line went dead.

Investigators initially deemed the death suspicious, but determined in July that no foul play was involved. It was concluded that Ms. Ellis died from smoke inhalation. The accidental fire was caused by an electrical malfunction in a second-floor bedroom of the house that was owned by James Myers.

Several fires hit the county during a thunderstorm in late August, one resulting in the death of a 91-year-old man.

Richard F. Weisheit, died as a result of smoke inhalation and thermal burn injuries from the fire in his home in the 1800 block of Creston Drive in Forest Hill. Deputy fire marshals believe the fire started in the two-story home's basement kitchen, and caused an estimated $350,000 in damages.

Investigators found no evidence of working smoke alarms in the home.

Conner Daniel McKeown, 20, died in early November in a two-alarm house fire in 2700 block of Greene Lane in Baldwin. The fire took 50 firefighters from Harford and Baltimore counties almost two hours to get under control.

McKeown's father, Kevin McKeown, reported the fire. When he arrived at the house, smoke and flames were visible. McKeown, who went inside to look for his son, was treated for minor burn injuries.

There was an estimated $100,000 in damages.

High-damage fires

A two-alarm fire in a home in the 1600 block of Deep Run Road in Whiteford caused nearly half a million dollars in damage in January.

According to fire officials, there was about $300,000 in damages to the split-level home and about $200,000 in damages to contents.

At least 60 firefighters from Whiteford, Darlington, Bel Air, Level, Jarrettsville, Delta-Cardiff, Fawn Grove and York County, Pa., were able to control the fire in an hour and a half. Homeowners Brian and Denise Ralph were not injured, but at least one family pet was killed in the fire.

No one was injured in a fire in February that caused more than $1 million in damages.

The house in the 2000 block of Watervale Road, owned by Raymond and Clare Santiago, according to state property assessment records, was on the market with a listed price of nearly $1.3 million.

The fire engulfed the 6,039-square-foot house before it collapsed into itself.

According to a description of the property online, the Fallston home had five bedrooms, five full bathrooms, a separate quarters for in-laws and "two pools – indoor and outdoor."

In addition to the $1.3 million worth of damages to the home, there was about half a million dollars in damages to its contents.

In July, a basement fire in a one-story rancher in Fallston burned for several hours before it was discovered, investigators reported.

The fire started accidentally from an electrical malfunction, deputy state fire marshals determined.

The fire in the 600 block of Powder Mill Road was controlled within 20 minutes and caused about half a million dollars in damages. Crews from Fallston, Bel Air, Joppa-Magnolia, Level and Jarrettsville volunteer fire companies in Harford County and Kingsville and Long Green volunteer fire companies in Baltimore County, responded.

More than 50 firefighters from nine companies in Harford and Baltimore counties tackled a blaze in March that caused more than half a million dollars in damages to a house near the I-95 exit in Joppa.

The house fire in the 1500 block of Old Mountain Road South took an hour to control. One man, Matthew L. Best, suffered from smoke inhalation.

Damages to the dwelling was reported at $500,000 and $100,000 to its contents.

Another house fire in December caused even greater damage to a home in the 2400 block of Bluefield Circle.

A passerby, according to the fire marshal's office, discovered the fire, which started in the garage. Homeowners Richard and Patricia Losh were home at the time, and were uninjured.

The damages to the home was estimated at $500,000 and with another $1 million in damages to the contents, including 13 vehicles that were stored on the property.

Investigators believe the fire was accidental.

A home in the Glen Angus development suffered more than $1 million in damages from a fire in April.

Timothy and Suzanne Fox discovered the fire on the deck behind their house in the 1400 block of North Berwick Court. They were not injured.

Sixty firefighters from Bel Air, Abingdon, Joppa-Magnolia, Fallston and Level volunteer fire companies fought the two-alarm blaze for 45 minutes before getting it under control. In total, the blaze caused more than $1 million worth of damages to the three-story home.

Though it's not possible, ever-vigilant fire officials aim for each year, in terms of losses to fire and accidents to be better than the year before. The coming of 2012 is no different.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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