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Recent fire illustrates need to be careful when working on old houses [Hudson's Corner]

With temperatures soaring from the 30s to the 90s in one week, homeowners are grinding into gear on renovation and repair projects. A smoky fire on Wyndhurst Avenue recently reminded me that caution and adherence to the law, by workers and owners, must be taken with old houses. According to Capt. Roman Clark, a spokesman for the Baltimore City Fire Department, roofers accidentally caused the fire.

When I went to examine the damage, a portion of the front porch ceiling was missing, as was all of the glass in the windows. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The shingled house still stands, thanks to a quick response by the fire department, with trucks and engines from three stations. That quick response by multiple firehouses is critical in areas filled with old, wood houses. 

When my husband passed by as the fire started and a worker ran to get the name of the streets, smoke poured from windows in the attic and basement. Six or seven fire trucks and emergency vehicles came immediately.

By the time I arrived, the fire department was closing a hydrant.  All windows in the house had been broken out. A fireman was unwinding a roll of plastic to cover them. 

An elderly woman, a renter, sat expressionless on a folding chair. Her family members were with her.  Soon they would be able to go inside and retrieve the woman's medicines and some clothes before taking her elsewhere. No one would be able to stay in the house for quite some time.

It seemed that few other neighbors, save Mary Macsherry from farther down Wyndhurst, were around. When I walked to Schneider's Hardware, Mrs. Macsherry was sitting on her porch. When I told her what had happened, she asked me to take word to the apartment dwellers that if anyone needed a place to rest, to come to her house. Elderly herself, she also promptly sent cold water with me back to the other family.

Days after the fire, the smell of smoke is still pungent. Workers are trying to repair the damage, but how long will it be before the smoke damage is cleared and the apartments ready for occupancy?

Over the decades I have lived in Roland Park, accidental fires have displaced families for many months if not more than a year. One house on Ridgewood had two fires in the 1970s and '80s, each caused by painters using a torch to burn off paint along the soffit. The flame used to burn the paint travelled under the roof and started fires both times. 

Although EPA regulations now forbid open flame or torching paint on homes that predate 1978, I have seen open flames used on turn-of-the-century houses in Roland Park as recently as this spring. This creates a lead paint hazard and potential disaster for homeowners.

Why do homeowners allow workers to use torches when that practice is both dangerous and hazardous?  At the houses where I have seen the torches still used, homeowners were away at work during the day. 

With multiple layers of old paint, much of it lead, paint eventually does have to be removed. New paint will not take. Heat guns are permitted if their temperature does not exceed 1,100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Sanding and grinding of surfaces with layers of pre-1978 paint, however, is also not allowed. I have seen and heard the whirring of "grinders," as a previous painter affectionately called his sander.

Seeing the damage at the house on Wyndhurst, and the displacement and trauma for those who live in it, makes me hope that all homeowners this season will be vigilant about what is used on their property.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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