Fire and law enforcement officials say they are trying to determine whether an Edgewood townhouse where three people died and two others were injured in a fire Thursday was an illegal boarding house.
State Fire Marshal Brian Geraci said the three-story house in the 1800 block of Simons Court was set up for nine people to live in. Eight of the nine living there were home at the time of the fire.
When five or more people who are unrelated are living together in one house, the house has to comply with state fire codes, Geraci said outside the scene Thursday afternoon.
“The eight seem to be unrelated,” Geraci said.
The fire marshal is working to determine the cause and origin of the fire, with assistance from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. The Harford County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the fatalities.
Geraci said nothing has been ruled out as a possible cause for the fire, including arson.
“If it’s arson we’ll deal with that,” Geraci said. “It may be criminal how the house is set up, and there could be charges against the property owner.”
The three people who were killed were on the third floor; three residents in the basement escaped without injury, said Emily Witty, public information officer for the Office of the State Fire Marshal. Two others were hospitalized.
A woman was taken to Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center where she is in critical condition with burns on 70 percent of her body, Geraci said. A man with non-life threatening injuries was taken to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center in Bel Air.
Authorities have not identified any of the occupants of the house.
The three-alarm fire was reported at 2:30 a.m. when residents at the Simons Court home heard the smoke alarm going off, Witty said.
As of last week, 10 people were living in the house, and one of them recently left, said Maj. Jack Simpson of the Harford County Sheriff’s Office.
The medical examiner was on the scene Thursday afternoon and the bodies were going to be taken to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore for autopsies, officials said.
Authorities entered the house for the first time around 3 p.m. Thursday, after obtaining a search warrant.
Investigators were expected to be on the scene until late Thursday and would return Friday to continuing documenting evidence, Simpson said.
Officials interviewed the owner of the house, who was not identified, and are working with him to gather additional information, including whether he has other homes in the area that may be violating fire code, Geraci said.
The home is owned by Alex Fox Home Group LLC, according to the Maryland Department of Assessments and Taxation online records, with an address listed in the 2500 block of Stone Cliff Drive in Baltimore.
The property was transferred on March 20, 2012, to Alex Fox for $30,000, online records show. The 1,040-square-foot, two-story house was built in 1974, according to the online records.
When reached by phone around noon Thursday, Fox said he had no comment about the fire.
“I was told by police not to talk to anybody while the investigation is going on,” Fox said.
The townhouses on either side of the burned out building were vacant, Witty said.
Firefighters didn’t know until 90 minutes after arriving that the adjacent homes were empty, said Joppa-Magnolia Volunteer Fire Company Chief Bill Vanarsdale, who was the first to arrive.
“There is a large population of homeless people in this area,” he said. “No house is vacant until we confirm it is.”
The houses on both sides sustained fire, smoke and water damage, Vanarsdale said.
He said there was fire in the front area of the top floor when he arrived.
“There was a lot of fire,” Vanarsdale said.
Aside from the three who died, the residents were out of the home by the time he arrived minutes after the call was dispatched.
Vanarsdale said firefighters don’t go into a fire expecting to have multiple adults living in a house.
County government does not impose a restriction on the number of tenants who can occupy a rental unit in the county, Harford County government spokeswoman Cynthia Mumby said.
Harford County Councilman Andre Johnson said rental units in the community where Thursday morning’s fire occurred is a “huge problem.”
“The fire and EMS guys said probably half the houses in the area here are not owner-occupied,” said Johnson, who arrived at the fire scene around 5:30 a.m. “When they’re not occupied, and the owner lives out of state, or wherever, who really takes care of these properties, makes sure smoke detectors are up to date?”
He had spoken with some of the residents nearby and he said most of them are doing OK.
“It’s got to be a difficult time because you have three fatalities,” Johnson said.