Effort targets block's vacant houses

Fire department raising awareness of arson

May 09, 1999|By Amy Oakes | Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

Surrounded by empty, trash-filled rowhouses in East Baltimore's Brentwood Village, Charlene Stafford has dealt with rats overtaking her basement, strange odors seeping into her house and the threat of a fire spreading to her home.

Since moving to the 1100 block of Forrest St. six years ago, Stafford has watched the houses around hers empty and become trash sites and targets of arsonists.

But she and a handful of neighbors got some relief yesterday when 100 Baltimore firefighters, housing authority workers and community volunteers pitched in to board up four vacant properties on the block and clean several nearby lots and alleys.

By early afternoon, the group had filled six garbage trucks with debris from the neighborhood.

"I'm really grateful they came out today," said Stafford, 49, standing outside her three-story rowhouse. "I've been trying to turn this neighborhood around but it's hard."

The Baltimore City Fire Department organized the effort as part of National Arson Awareness Week.

"The problem is fires will begin in a vacant rowhouse and then extend to where people occupy a house," said Battalion Chief Hector L. Torres.

Arsonists often target vacant properties, Torres said, so it's important for residents to monitor the empty rowhouses and alert fire officials of any suspicious activity. A quarter of the $20 million in fire damage to Baltimore properties last year was arson related, he said.

Along with the firefighters, a dozen workers from the Housing Authority for Baltimore City, 32 residents of Christopher Place, a shelter for homeless men in the 700 block of E. Eager St., and other volunteers walked through neighborhood alleys and vacant lots in the area, picking up everything from empty cardboard boxes to beer bottles to syringes.

Those with construction experience cleaned out the houses and boarded the windows and door spaces with pieces of plywood decorated with black "Target Arson" bumper stickers.

In all, six large bins of trash were hauled away, said Larry Jones, part of the housing authority's team.

"It got so bad that we had to call in a Bobcat," Jones said, referring to a mini front-end loader they used to scoop up garbage and place it in a truck.

"There were a lot of interesting people out here," said Zander Richardson, 28, who has lived at Christopher Place since February. "That's what it's about: meeting with the community."

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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