Fire engines trying to reach a burning rowhouse in East Baltimore yesterday got stuck in snowdrifts just shy of the blaze, causing a delay that allowed the fire to spread and force 20 people from their homes.
The four-alarm blaze brought 50 firefighters to the scene -- many more than usually would have responded to the fire, which started in the basement and quickly spread to the roof of a rowhouse at 429 E. 20th St.
"If weather conditions weren't what they were today, the fire would not have extended in the manner that it did," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres, a Fire Department spokesman.
Because a ladder and a platform truck got stuck in the street, firefighters had to carry ladders, oxygen tanks and other equipment through at least 2 feet of snow for several blocks.
Each truck weighs more than 20,000 pounds and has heavy chains on its tires. "The fact that they are getting stuck tells you what kind of conditions are out there in certain areas," Chief Torres said.
The fire, which caused $230,000 in damage, broke out about 11:30 a.m. and spread up through the walls and into a loft area between the third-floor ceiling and the roof, fire officials said. It then spread quickly to other rowhouses.
"You could see the fire coming out of the walls," said Robert Wilson, who lives in the rowhouse where the fire started. He and his companion, Rebecca Parham, escaped unharmed. Police officers banged on doors and evacuated four other rowhouses.
The Red Cross helped residents find shelter. Fire officials said four of the five rowhouses could not be occupied.
Fire investigators said last night that the cause was an electrical malfunction in a circuit breaker box.
BTC East 20th Street had not been plowed yesterday, and fire officials said homeowners compounded the problem by shoveling snow from their walks onto the road. Some firefighters were standing on piles as high as the tops of cars in the middle of the street.
Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. said snow-covered side streets are posing a life-threatening situation for Baltimore residents. "That's why it is so important that people help us by shoveling their walks and the fire hydrants," he said.