Fires prompt warnings

Deaths lead officials to talk to residents about safety in homes

November 22, 2005|By GUS G. SENTEMENTES | GUS G. SENTEMENTES,SUN REPORTER

What was once a home is now a memorial to the short lives of three young brothers.

Neighbors, friends and relatives stepped around the charred possessions of the Alger family yesterday to leave stuffed animals, light candles and write notes for the boys who died when their home burned Sunday in Southwest Baltimore.

"Glen, Johnny, Chris ... You guys will never be forgotten ... RIP 11/20/05," one note said on the front wall of the rowhouse in the 1200 block of Washington Blvd.

The deaths of the boys - Glen, 9; Christopher, 7; and Jonathan, 4 - were the latest in a spate of fires that has claimed eight lives since Friday and has fire officials reaching out to city residents and preaching the importance of fire safety in homes.

Fire officials say they are concerned that cold weather and high heating costs could bring even more fatalities as people turn to alternative sources of heat and light, such as portable space heaters, candles and kitchen stoves.

"This unfortunate loss of life does affect not just our firefighters, but the community at large," said Chief Kevin Cartwright, a Fire Department spokesman.

Investigators are trying to determine what caused the four fatal fires in three days, though one that killed two people on Friday is being probed as an arson and double homicide. So far this year, 21 people have died in fires in Baltimore; 29 died in 2004, city fire officials said.

Yesterday, firefighters walked door to door in the Washington Village neighborhood where the boys lived, talking about fire safety and advising residents to check or install smoke detectors.

Cartwright said the Fire Department is preparing to launch a publicity campaign to raise awareness and stress the dangers of space heaters.

"From an economic standpoint, some people can't afford" traditional methods of heating their home, Cartwright said, and "may resort to alternative sources."

Cartwright said residents can call the Fire Department for advice about portable heating appliances. Kerosene heaters are illegal in the city. Firefighters also can help families craft emergency plans, assess a home's fire safety needs, and test or install smoke detectors.

In winter, increased use of lighting, heating and appliances can strain electrical systems, while chimneys can be a source of fire if they're not properly cleaned and maintained, experts say.

Using a kitchen stove for heat is never recommended, experts say. They also advise keeping portable electrical and fuel-based heaters and stoves away from flammable materials.

"We anticipate a rise in the use of alternative heating sources, the portable space heaters, with electric, or kerosene or gas," said W. Faron Taylor, a deputy state fire marshal. "More people are using wood stoves to provide supplemental heat so that their furnace isn't on so often."

Taylor said children and the elderly are most vulnerable to fire deaths, in part because they are less likely to be able to escape a home on their own.

The leading cause of fires in the home is what Taylor described as "careless cooking," such as a meal left unattended on the stove that builds into a fire.

Smoking is the leading cause of fatal fires, Taylor said. Other leading causes include candles, particularly around the holiday season, and children playing with matches, he said.

"These truly are all preventable," Taylor said.

The blaze that killed the boys came after a fatal fire Saturday afternoon in which two elderly people died in the 400 block of Elrino St. in Southeast Baltimore. Authorities identified one of the victims as Robert Miller, 70, but did not release the name of the other victim, a woman.

On Friday afternoon in West Baltimore, Barbara Cameron died in the 2400 block of Woodbrook Ave. after her rowhouse caught fire. She was found in a second-floor bedroom, officials said.

Early Friday, firefighters responding to a fire at the Windsor Court Apartments in the 2100 block of Garrison Blvd. found a woman dying and a man dead from what was first thought to be the effects of a fire caused by someone pouring an unknown fuel about their apartment.

Homicide Detective Robert Cherry said yesterday the woman, Thomasine Evans, 41, and the unidentified man were each shot multiple times before the fire was set. Cherry said Evans died at Sinai Hospital and that the man, whose body was severely burned, was dead at the scene. Dental records might be needed to identify the man, believed to be Evans' boyfriend, he said.

On Washington Boulevard yesterday, people milled in front of the burned-out home. Some said the boys' parents, David and Angie Alger, who were hospitalized in critical condition, did not yet know that their children had died.

Cartwright said investigators believe the fire started on the second floor, where the children were found in a bedroom that was heavily damaged.

Neighbors and friends recalled how the three boys played in the streets with the other children. The two older boys, Glen and Christopher, attended elementary school a few blocks away. The boys loved playing video games and going to church, neighbors and relatives said.

"Everybody keeps picturing the kids in their heads," said Timothy Bickling, an uncle. "Now we're all trying to stay strong so we can prepare for Angie and Dave. It's going to be hard to lose all three of them at the same time. I mean, they're burying their children instead of their children burying them."

gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

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