A house fire claimed a life in East Baltimore early Saturday, not far from where six members of a family died in a blaze days earlier, and just hours before firefighters were due to go door to door in the area to check if homes had working smoke alarms.
The city fire union reacted to the fire deaths by criticizing city budget cuts, which have led to a system of rotating fire company closures. Fire officials asserted that the closures did not contribute to the deaths but announced Saturday night that only two of its 54 fire companies would be closed each day, down from three.
The Fire Department was already planning to sweep through East Baltimore on Saturday afternoon with free smoke detectors after the fire that killed six on Tuesday. But the morning fire added urgency to their mission.
"We're trying to make sure we don't have any more people lose their lives in a house fire," said fire Chief James S. Clack. "Our goal is zero, and we've got a ways to go."
Fire officials said an unidentified person died in the fire reported around 6 a.m. at 1401 Homestead St., in the Homestead-Montebello neighborhood. At the scene, neighbors gathered outside the charred green wood-frame house. Edward Horne said he was relieved to learn that the owner, someone he'd shoveled snow with during last winter's blizzards, had not been home at the time. He understood the victim to have been a friend of the owner's.
"It was good to see it wasn't him, but I'm sorry about his friend," Horne said.
While battling the fire, firefighters found a badly burned body in the front room. The person, who police later said they believe to be a man, apparently died of smoke inhalation and burns, though an autopsy will be required, fire department spokesman Kevin Cartwright said.
No one else was found in the house, and there were no reported injuries to firefighters.
Fire investigators and police arson detectives were on the scene Saturday, trying to determine the cause of the fire. It was not immediately clear whether there were working smoke detectors in the home, Cartwright said.
A little less than a mile away, near the scene of Tuesday's blaze, firefighters knocked on doors and asked residents if they had working smoke detectors. The department supplied and installed alarms in homes lacking them.
That outreach was a response to a fire in the 2300 block of Homewood Avenue, which claimed the lives of three generations of the Satterfield family — three of them children ages 9, 3 and 1.
The week's seven fire deaths pushed this year's total to 19, which Cartwright said is the same number of fire fatalities as in 2009.
Saturday's fire prompted the firefighters union to denounce the practice of rotating closures..
"The second due Engine company was closed during this fire as part of Mayor [Stephanie] Rawlings-Blake's efforts to save pennies in the overall City Budget," Baltimore Firefighters Local 734 said in the e-mail.
"Tell Mayor Rawlings-Blake, and our other elected leaders, that enough is enough," the message continued.
Cartwright noted that the Fire Company 33 was dispatched to the scene at 6:15 a.m. and arrived at 6:18 a.m.. He said other companies arrived just minutes later, at 6:21 a.m. and 6:23 a.m.
"The union continues their assault the city government," Cartwright said, adding that the department had "excellent fire response times."
"We have to do what we have to do in these challenging times," he said.
Later Saturday, Clack announced that the Fire Department is about $250,000 under budget for the year and that those funds will be used to pay the overtime costs for firefighters to staff the additional company into next year.
Clack said he has asked finance officials to budget $160 million for the department next year, which would prevent the need for any rolling closures.
Clack stressed that he believed none of the recent fires — including the fatal fires in East Baltimore and five-alarm blazes on The Block and Mt. Vernon — would have had different outcomes if all companies had been open.
"We had good response times to all of them," he said.
In the Midway neighborhood where the Satterfields died Tuesday, just east of Greenmount Avenue and south of 25th Street, firefighters found many homes in need of detectors and basic fire-safety tips.
Residents of at least one house peeked out the window at firefighters but refused to talk with them. But many, like Gerald Young, welcomed them inside.
"They don't have to do this, but they're walking through the neighborhood, making sure this doesn't happen again," said Young, 56, who cleans basements and sells scrap metal for a living.
"I break the law; I keep it real," Young volunteered. "I sweep the leaves. I also do a lot of rotten stuff. This is a community of good and bad. When they come around and do good stuff, it makes you want to do good — be on a neighborhood watch."
While firefighters were inside Young's rowhouse, he told them that he has resorted to turning on the gas stovetop to warm the place up.
"Sometimes we put on the first two burners," he said. "Is that bad?"
"It's bad," a firefighter informed him.
Young was also advised to test the batteries in his smoke detector every month, even though they're supposed to last for 10 years.
Patricia Kam, who lives around the corner from the Satterfields' burned-out rowhouse with her 9-year-old daughter, Jessica, already had smoke detectors on all three floors of her rowhouse. The nursing assistant said she's been vigilant about fire safety even since she lost all of her possessions in a house fire 2001.
Rolling up the sleeves of her purple bathrobe to show scars from the burns she'd suffered, she said, "It can happen to you, too."