Harold Diggs, Edgewood Neighborhood Community Association president, talks about the pain that lids feel as a rash of fires hit the area.
Harold Diggs was almost asleep when he heard shouting outside his Edmondson Village home.
“Mr. Diggs! Mr. Diggs! We need help!”
The 42-year-old dragged himself out of bed and looked out the window to see what has become a familiar sight for the Edgewood Neighborhood Association president: a set of rowhouses on fire.
Since July, neighborhoods within the Southwest Baltimore police district have experienced more then 30 fires. Only six have been ruled arson, and fire officials are urging people not to rush to judgment. But that hasn’t quelled the fear among members of the community, many of whom worry their homes could be next to go up in flames.
“There is a problem but nobody wants to label it,” Diggs said. “A point is trying to be made and it’s unfortunately with fire.”
Four fires burned last week within a mile and a half of each other in the Edmondson Village area, a neighborhood that also saw 11 fires in July. In December, the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood had 17 fires, five of which were ruled arson, all within 10 days. And in November, firefighters responded to a three-alarm blaze in the historic Edmondson Village Shopping Center that damaged 10 businesses. Most of the homes that burned were vacant.
Baltimore Police announced the arrest of two men last month who have been charged in three blazes, but have not announced any other arrests.
Officials have not said what caused most of the fires, citing an ongoing investigation, but said the department continues to monitor the situation.
The fire department has stationed additional firefighters to “canvas” the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood "to provide visibility and to maintain a presence with community members,” said Blair Adams, the fire department spokeswoman, in a statement this week.
She said firefighters continue to attend community meetings to address residents questions and concerns.
Baltimore Police investigated 88 arson cases last year, of which 35 were closed, and officers made 26 arrests. In 2018, there were 92 fires ruled arson, 29 of which were closed. Officers made 28 arrests that year. The department is currently weighing a recommendation by an outside consultant to move arson investigations to the fire department, freeing up more officers for the over-stretched police force.
Adams said this week she could not provide data on how many fires occurred in the Southwest police district last year or previous years, or how many of those fire occurred in vacant buildings, which can pose added dangers.
The city has worked to reduce the number of vacant homes in recent years, but despite ongoing demolitions, it cannot keep up. An analysis last year of the city’s more than 16,000 vacant buildings found that six southwest neighborhoods, including Edmondson Village and Carrollton Ridge, continued to see increases in vacant homes.
Diggs has witnessed the uptick, too.
Of all the vacant homes torched in the area, he said he only knows of one that has been rehabilitated. On a recent walk around the neighborhood, the community leader pointed at homes that went up in flames almost six months ago. Nearly all still have charred piles of rubble in their backyards.
“We’re in need of help,” Diggs said. “I tell people that the Southwest is on fire. Everything is on fire.”
Reggie Arthur, an Edmondson Village resident, awoke one night last week to his daughter banging on the bedroom door. The air was filled with thick, black smoke. The house next to his had caught fire.
Arthur and his family escaped safely, but firefighters had to knock down two of their walls to extinguish the blaze.
The 67-year-old stood beside his daughter and granddaughter in pajamas for three hours as firefighters worked to make sure the brick row house in the 600 block of Allendale St. would be safe to return to. After firefighters ensured the carbon dioxide level was safe, the family was allowed back in their home and able to crawl back into bed.
“I thought we were going to lose everything,” Arthur said. “Thank God no lives were taken. We can always get another place, but we can’t replace life.”
Though Arthur was glad his home suffered minimal damage, he expressed frustration with city officials over their response to the fire. He said nobody has come to check on his family and he hasn’t heard anything about the investigation.
“We didn’t start the fire — we were victims,” Arthur said. “I know we have murders in this city, and I’m sad about it, but I consider this just as tragic. Somebody could’ve lost their life and they’re acting like the fire never happened, like we don’t count.
City officials said they are working to board up vacant homes and provide additional homeless outreach in the area. Last month, the mayor, the police commissioner and fire chief toured a section of Carrollton Ridge where fires broke out. Residents expressed concern about the charred homes being a target for future blazes if left unsecured. Vacant homes don’t have power, heat or alarm systems, which makes them hazardous for drug users or homeless people who sometimes occupy them.
James Bentley, a spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the city has focused police, fire and homeless resources into the area in recent months.
Bentley said Thursday that 16 homes related to the fires have been boarded up recently, and another is expected to be done this week.
Diggs too said he feels like law enforcement and the fire department are doing their part with increased patrols and community policing, but that city leaders have fallen short in giving the neighborhood the resources it needs.
For example, the future of the Edmondson Village Shopping Center, is still in limbo after it was gutted by the November fire. With few other shops in the area, its absence leaves many struggling to buy basic necessities.
“If you have your councilman, senator and former mayor all [living] within blocks of the neighborhood and it still looks like this?” Diggs said. “I don’t know what your intentions are.”
Diggs, who runs a mentorship program in city schools, said recently that almost every day a child asks him if their home will be the next one to burn down. Many tell him they are terrified to go to sleep at night.
He calms them down. He reminds the kids that he doesn’t think anyone is targeting them. To put a positive spin on it, he said at least the fires are drawing attention to a neighborhood that needs help.