With 34 dead in fires, year is the city's worst since 1998

Officials across U.S. see pattern of more high-casualty blazes

December 29, 2007|By Ruma Kumar | Ruma Kumar,Sun reporter

The "I love you" and "Rest in peace" notes scribbled on the wooden boards barricading the hollow windows of 1903 Cecil Ave. have begun to fade.

But everything about the May blaze in an East Baltimore rowhouse that killed eight of her neighbors - five of them children - remains vivid for Anita Paige.

After 14 years on this block, Paige says she is living more carefully: making sure not to leave the kitchen while a pot of soup's bubbling on the stove, clearing clothes away from her water heater and checking to see that her smoke detector works.

"I'm real cautious now - you know, don't take anything for granted," she said.

There are Anita Paiges in many neighborhoods across Baltimore trying to piece their lives back together after losing friends, neighbors, family members in the city's deadliest year of fires since 1998.

Thirty-four people died, and the lack of working smoke detectors was a common denominator in 10 of the 24 fatal blazes reported as of yesterday, said Baltimore City Fire Marshal Bob Doedderlein. Without an early warning to escape, he and state fire officials said, individual fires are becoming more deadly, killing three or more people at a time.

Two fires fueled this year's spike: the one on Cecil Avenue and another in a Franklintown apartment building that killed three. Without them, the city would be on par with last year's total of 23 fatalities.

High-casualty fires are part of a troubling pattern emerging across the nation and Maryland, which recorded 91 deaths this year, the most since 2001, said state Fire Marshal William E. Barnard. The numbers have prompted Barnard to get involved in two national fire safety summits, one in January and another in the spring at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg.

"How and why is one fire killing so many people at once?" he asked. "Is this about needing more smoke alarms? Does this trend say something about the way we live now, with more plastics in the house that make fires burn hotter and faster?"

Leaving cigarettes unattended was the leading cause of fire deaths in the city this year, accounting for half - 17 - of them. Fire safety officials hope to shrink that number with a new state law that goes into effect July 1, approving the sale of "fire-safe" cigarettes designed to extinguish on their own.

Other reasons for this year's fire fatalities include food left unattended on stovetops and portable heaters, and other heating elements such as water heaters kept too close to things that can burn: clothes, carpets and drapes.

"Some of this is just negligence," Baltimore's Doedderlein said. "People are not doing the simple things they need to be doing, and we can do our part to get the word out, but a lot of this boils down to personal responsibility."

Lorraine Carli, who tracks fire trends for the National Fire Protection Association and is a spokeswoman for the Quincy, Mass.-based group, said society has gotten complacent about fires. The causes of most fatal fires in Baltimore are the top three causes of home fires nationwide, she said.

"We still average 3,000 deaths a year as a result of fire, and the large majority of them are preventable: If you smoke, smoke outside. Keep things that can burn three feet from space heaters," Carli said. "It's common sense."

Baltimore City fire officials are planning in 2008 to launch an aggressive public education campaign that puts more smoke detectors in homes and bombards residents with fire safety messages over the radio and on billboards and the sides of buses. Doedderlein said the city fire marshal's office has applied for a $1.7 million grant from the Department of Homeland Security to bolster local efforts, including a program that has distributed or installed more than 100,000 smoke detectors in homes since the mid-1980s.

The Cecil Avenue fire on May 22, the deadliest the city had seen since 1994, had a lethal combination: no smoke detector and a cigarette left burning on a couch. By 7:21 that May morning, an inferno raged on the first floor of the rowhouse, forcing some of the home's 13 occupants to jump out second-floor windows to escape.

The fire claimed six lives that day. Within two weeks, the toll had climbed to eight: four generations in a family.

In the days that followed, neighbors on Cecil Avenue didn't go to work. Some of the kids on the block skipped school. The charred remains of the home were searched for answers.

The same kind of shock took over in Franklintown after a July 15 blaze killed a woman, her son and her niece, and displaced more than a dozen families in an apartment complex on Forest Park Avenue.

And this month, hundreds mourned the loss of Abby and Matthew Young, who were killed by a fire that roared through their house in Roland Park. The Dec. 6 fire seriously injured their father, Stephen A. Young, a deputy copy desk chief at The Sun. Its cause is still under investigation.

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