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Were snowy side streets what prevented fire crews from getting to these homes faster?

Tired of parking around the corner, David Gavidia went to the alley Monday morning beside his Highlandtown row house and shoveled four hours. By night, his parking space cleared, he watched the Discovery channel with his wife and boys when a knock came urgent at the door.

Fire!

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Black smoke was filling the home two doors down on Mount Pleasant Avenue. He ran to the street, still snow-covered, some mounds chest-high. Smoke poured from the home's windows. But the house, he believed, was empty. He hurried his own family outside into their car and drove down the alley away from the flames.

A fire truck turned east down Mount Pleasant. It was nearly 9 p.m. and the driver plowed through a snow bank at the street's entrance. He drove that snow bank back several yards and stopped. The street was impassable.

Battalion Chief Rick Lago hurried from the truck through the snow. Neighbors had gathered. The flames were burning through the row house windows. Lago called to some men on the street and they all dragged the fire hoses down the snowy block. Gavidia helped, too.

Five hours earlier, at a news conference in Baltimore, the Department of Transportation director, William Johnson, said families were calling, asking when their streets would be plowed.

"I can't give you a deadline," he said. The weekend's historic snowfall dumped more than two feet on Baltimore. "We're in an area of unchartered waters," he said.

Clearing the streets, officials pledged, remained the highest priority. Sunday, they said about half of neighborhood streets remained covered.

In Highlandtown, Monday night, the hoses stretched down the block, maybe 75 yards, said Lago, the battalion chief. Firefighters worked and sprayed the smoldering house. The second floor had collapsed. The front windows, upstairs, were knocked out and charred: two black eyes.

Gavidia believed the house was empty. Another neighbor said one family escaped. Lago was unsure, but there didn't appear to be anyone inside, he said.

It took firefighters nearly two hours to control the flames. By then, the fire had spread in the row houses next door.

"We were certainly hampered by the snow," Lago said afterward, looking into the house, the burnt debris.

Later, fire department spokesman Sam Johnson said as many as five families may have been displaced. So questions remained late Monday night.

By midnight the fire was extinguished. The inspectors had arrived. Gavidia left to stay with family outside the city.

The crews collected their hoses stretching down the block, rising and falling over the mounds, and parting, in the very middle of the street, around a snowman.

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