Walking along South Stricker Street in Baltimore, evidence of abandonment is difficult to overlook.
A vacant rowhouse with a scorched facade. A sofa torn asunder beside a front stoop. A stuffed animal wedged between the boards where a window once was.
On Monday, residents were reminded once more that this neglect can come at great cost. Before 6 a.m., a vacant house at 205 S. Stricker caught fire. When firefighters rushed in, the three-story building collapsed, trapping them in the rubble. Three were killed and another was seriously injured, making the blaze in Central Southwest Baltimore one of the deadliest for firefighters in city history.
For 38-year-old Aboni Ward, who lives down the block, it’s evidence that the city isn’t equipped to deal with abandoned homes before tragedy strikes and the situation becomes an emergency.
“They really don’t care until something like this happens,” she said.
Now, the city will have to demolish what remains of 205 S. Stricker, along with a vacant home next door and another that was occupied. The owners will be billed for the costs, and any unpaid fees will result in liens against the properties.
The New Southwest/Mount Clare neighborhood where the fire occurred has the sixth most vacant houses in Baltimore, a city with about 16,000 vacants, according to online data. A persistent problem for a depopulating city — and a consistent headache for neighbors — vacants also pose unique dangers to emergency personnel when they burn.
It’s often unclear whether any occupants are inside, and firefighters considering going in must weigh the risk of fire spreading from one rowhouse to the next against the possibility of collapse.
Nationally, vacant building fires have an outsized impact on firefighter safety, a 2018 study by the National Fire Protection Association showed. Just 6% of all structure fires occur in vacant properties, but they account for 13% of firefighter injuries, according to the study. Between 2006 and 2016, 20 U.S. firefighters were killed fighting blazes in vacant buildings.
The study also showed the rate of spread for fires in vacant buildings to surrounding structures is almost triple that of all structure fires combined.
The Baltimore City Fire Department could not provide data on structure fires in vacant city properties. However, they have proved deadly for city firefighters in the past. In 2014, Lt. James Bethea succumbed to smoke inhalation after falling inside a vacant house where he was battling a blaze.
During a news conference Monday, Fire Chief Niles Ford cited the occupied home next to the Stricker Street property as a potential reason for the firefighters going inside.
“They made the determination they could control the fire and put it out,” he said. “It’s up to those individuals on the scene to see the circumstances they have, and they did.”
Battalion Chief Josh Fannon, president of the Baltimore Fire Officers Association, said Thursday that first responders were told there may be a person trapped inside the dwelling.
“If we have a report of people trapped and we’re able to do so, then we’re going to make an interior attack to try to get to that victim, and seconds count,” he said.
A commander’s decision to enter a burning home may need to be made in a split second, with little information, said Steve Hirsch, chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council and a firefighter in Kansas for about 35 years. Uncertainties complicate efforts to stick to the mantra of risk a little to save a little and risk a lot to save a lot, he said.
“You recognize there are people who are homeless who can set up shelter in houses that have been perhaps vacant or abandoned for a long period of time, so the fire department doesn’t know when they pull up on scene whether or not that might be a possibility,” Hirsch said.
Answers about what started the Baltimore fire, how firefighters responded and how they were hurt may not be known until an investigation is complete. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is among the agencies investigating the fire, said Friday a cause had not been determined but agents are seeking a “person of interest” who they believe has information about the blaze.
Lee Laubach, a former city fire chief from Pennsylvania, said vacant buildings are a quandary because firefighters don’t know for sure that a structure is vacant until they’re inside.
Firefighters conduct a process called overhaul once flames have been initially suppressed, he said. During overhaul, firefighters enter a building to search for people and put out hot spots that can’t be reached from outside.
Laubach said overhaul has proved dangerous for firefighters. Laubach pointed to a 2018 collapse of a former industrial building in York, Pennsylvania, that killed two firefighters during the overhaul.
“Overhaul is one of the top things that kills firefighters,” he said.
In the case of Monday’s fire, firefighters may not have known the home they were about to enter, vacant since at least 2010, had caught fire six years ago, injuring three firefighters. The city condemned it as a result of that fire, and offered it for sale due to unpaid taxes, but it found no takers, so it remained with its owners, said Tammy Hawley, spokeswoman for the city housing department. Efforts by The Baltimore Sun to reach them were unsuccessful.
Each year, vacant property owners must complete a registration, and the owner of the home on Stricker was cited in 2020 for failing to do so. The property was last inspected Jan. 4 when an inspector found the front of the home adequately boarded up and clean.
Local housing advocates say the deaths of fire lieutenants Paul Butrim and Kelsey Sadler and Paramedic/Firefighter Kenny Lacayo could be a catalyst for city leaders to take a deeper look at the policies that created Baltimore’s vast stock of vacant properties and to hold owners to higher account.
Nneka N’namdi of Fight Blight Bmore said the fire is the first in a long time when firefighters have lost their lives in a vacant property, but far from the first time vacant buildings have killed in Baltimore.
“They kill people every day, whether it’s asthma rates, whether it’s the longer term effects of living in a neighborhood without food, whether it’s housing insecurity in a global pandemic,” she said. “Blight, vacancy, dilapidation has been killing people for years in this city.”
N’namdi said it’s the responsibility of city leaders to better hold owners responsible for the condition of their properties: making sure property taxes are paid and that properties are properly boarded up and cleared out until they can be restored to useful condition.
N’namdi called the Stricker Street property “fruit of a poison tree.”
“When you have 500 years of racist housing and community development policy, this is the result,” she said. “I don’t know that specifically the last inspector out there could have done more. I doubt it. This system is not set up to hold property owners accountable.”
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey said he’s concerned that insufficient funding for the city’s code enforcement staff contributes to the problem. Also, properties like the one on Stricker Street have tax rates so low there’s little incentive for an owner to mind the property, he said. State and city real estate records list the value of the building, built in 1900, as $6,000 and the combined state and city tax bill for the current year at about $150.
“It doesn’t cost you anything to sit and wait on it as speculative real estate for years on end,” he said.
Dorsey, a Democrat who represents Northeast Baltimore, said he can see the benefits of charging a higher tax rate on blighted or vacant properties, something that would require a change in state law. In lieu of that, Baltimore can issue a $900 citation to owners of properties who don’t resolve issues at buildings that have been tagged as vacant but not razed or improved.
The Stricker Street property never received such a citation, he said.
“There’s a possibility we didn’t issue the citation there because we didn’t have the enforcement capacity,” Dorsey said. “If you look at the records, there is no routine follow up on vacant building notices.”
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The Southwest Partnership, a coalition of neighborhood groups, has considered using grant money or other funding sources to pay someone to check on vacant homes in the area, said executive director Tony Scott. While someone making such checks couldn’t board up homes, they could take charge of submitting 311 requests to the city when the homes are breached or otherwise create a hazard.
Meanwhile, the partnership is aiming to use “nodes of real estate strength,” like historic Carroll Park and Union Square, to encourage development block by block. At the same time, the partnership is trying to provide resources to keep residents keep living there: advising them on how to assist the homeless population; what to do if they see someone experiencing an overdose, and how to adjust to the loss of community when more homes become vacant.
“These things wear down on the psyche of residents,” Scott said.
The growth in vacant homes has lately surpassed efforts to reduce their grip on Mount Clare, a low-income, majority-Black community. During the most recent three fiscal years, 25 vacant homes were rehabbed and 19 demolished, while 47 homes became vacant, resulting in a net increase of three vacant homes, according to city data.
Richard Helmick, 57, said he’s lived in the neighborhood for about 10 years, and vacant homes are a persistent problem. Helmick lives next to a home with no regular occupants, though he said the landlord comes to check it once in a while. He and his neighbors, ever worried that something could go wrong while the home remains empty, monitor it carefully.
Circling the neighborhood, Helmick pointed out sources of frustration and concern, such as boards ripped aside at homes near his, perhaps by unhoused people seeking shelter from the cold nights of January.
“It scares me a little bit,” he said. “Because you never know when somebody might break into the back door and go in there and start sleeping in it, and then the homes that are next to me — it’s like four or five of them — catch on fire.”