Investigators with the Office of the State Fire Marshal have determined the cause of a fire that gutted two Bel Air townhomes and damaged several neighboring dwellings last Wednesday was "improperly disposed coals from a charcoal grill," which was on a rear deck of a home in the 900 block of Pentwood Court.
The coals had been left in the grill "from the previous evening and were believed to have been cooled and extinguished prior placing the cover over the grill," officials with the fire marshal's office stated in a news release issued Friday
"With summer in full swing, Marylanders are urged to use caution when using both charcoal and gas grills," Acting State Fire Marshal Joseph C. Flanagan stated in the news release. "While this fire was accidental in nature, great caution should be taken in properly disposing of ashes with the safest method being to soak the ashes thoroughly with water before being disposed of."
The flames consumed the house and spread to a connected home. The next house over, plus two houses behind that block, suffered heat damage "due to the intense flames," according to the release.
Three firefighters were also hurt; one was taken to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center with injuries from falling through a set of interior stairs, and has been released, according to the press release.
Two other firefighters declined treatment for their injuries.
The owner of the house where the fire started got out, along with her son and his friends who were in the house, as well as the people on either side.
The damage to the structures was estimated close to $500,000, according to the fire marshal's office; the residents have since received support through the American Red Cross and Harford County Disaster Assistance.
"Even standing here, looking at it, it hasn't sunk in completely," said Tim Stone, who lived with his family in the second home gutted, to the right of the house where the fire started. "It's almost like we're living someone else's nightmare."
Stone and his wife, Karen, stood in the parking lot Saturday, across from the now boarded-up houses. Decorations still hung from a tree in their front yard.
They were on vacation when the fire occurred, but their two adult sons were home.
Tim Stone said one of his sons told him he was watching television around 2 a.m. when "he saw a glow coming from outside."
He and his brother got out safely, but they lost a cat and a kitten to the fire.
"By the time they got outside it had already jumped over to our deck," Stone said.
Stone said the home of his daughter, Jennifer Hicks, to the left of the house that burned, suffered smoke and water damage.
Hicks also stopped by the house Saturday.
Stone and his wife were "so grateful to the fire department for saving Jennifer's house," and were glad the firefighters contained the blaze before it took the entire block of townhomes.
"We're just grateful that it came our way and not the other way," he said.
The Stones have received an outpouring of help from their insurance company, relief agencies, neighbors and the wider community, with support such as places to live and donations of clothing.
"Just the outreach from everybody, I don't even have words for it," Tim Stone said. "It's just unbelievable."