Southwest Baltimore residents fearful after 30+ fires since July

Authorities are taking measures to patrol neighborhoods and secure vacant buildings after more than 30 fires in recent months, including six arsons

Jessica Anderson
The Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Harold Diggs was almost asleep when he heard shouting outside his Edmondson Village home.

“Mr. Diggs! Mr. Diggs! We need help!”

A three-alarm fire tore through the historic Edmondson Village Shopping Center in West Baltimore in November, damaging 10 businesses. More than 30 fires since July have left residents in Baltimore's southwestern region fearful their homes could be next to go up in flames. (Photo/Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun)
A three-alarm fire tore through the historic Edmondson Village Shopping Center in West Baltimore in November, damaging 10 businesses. More than 30 fires since July have left residents in Baltimore's southwestern region fearful their homes could be next to go up in flames. (Photo/Jerry Jackson, Baltimore Sun)

The 42-year-old dragged himself out of bed and look out the window to see what has become a familiar sight for the Edgewood Neighborhood Association president: a set of rowhouses on fire.

Since July, the southwestern area of Baltimore has experienced more than 30 fires. Only six have been ruled arson, and fire officials are urging people not to rush to judgment. But that hasn’t quelled the fear among members of the community, many of whom worry their homes could be next to go up in flames.

“There is a problem but nobody wants to label it,” Diggs said. “A point is trying to be made and it’s unfortunately with fire.”

Four fires burned last week within a mile and a half in the Edmondson Village area, a neighborhood that also saw 11 fires in July. In December, the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood had 17 fires, five of which were ruled arson, all within 10 days. And in November, firefighters responded to a three-alarm blaze in the historic Edmondson Village Shopping Center that damaged 10 businesses. Most of the homes that burned were vacant.

Baltimore Police announced the arrest of two men last month who have been charged in three blazes, but have not announced any other arrests.

Officials have not said what caused most of the fires, citing an ongoing investigation, but said the department continues to monitor the situation.

The fire department has stationed additional firefighters to “canvas” the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood "to provide visibility and to maintain a presence with community members,” said fire department spokeswoman Blair Adams in a statement this week.

She said firefighters continue to attend community meetings to address residents questions and concerns.

Police last year investigated 88 arson cases, of which 35 were closed, and officers made 26 arrests. In 2018, there were 92 ruled arson, 29 of which were closed. Officers made 28 arrests that year. The department is currently weighing recommendations by an outside consultant to move arson investigations to the fire department, freeing up more officers for the over-stretched department.

Adams this week said she could not provide data Tuesday on how many fires occurred in the Southwest District last year or previous years, or how many of those fire occurred in vacant buildings, which can pose added dangers.

The city has worked to reduce the number of vacant homes in recent years, however, despite demolitions, it cannot keep up. An analysis last year of the city’s more than 16,000 vacant buildings found that six southwest neighborhoods, including Edmondson Village and Carrollton Ridge, continued to see increases in vacant homes. There were 74 additional properties over an eight-month period, the analysis found.

Diggs has also witnessed the increase in abandoned homes.

Of all the ones torched in the area, he said he only knows of one that has been rehabilitated. On a recent walk around the neighborhood, the community leader pointed at homes that went up in flames almost six months ago. Almost all still have charred piles of rubble in their backyards.

“We’re in need of help,” Diggs said. “I tell people that the Southwest is on fire. Everything is on fire.”

Reggie Arthur, an Edmondson Village resident, awoke one night last week to his daughter banging on the bedroom door. The air was filled with thick, black smoke. The house next to his had caught fire.

Arthur and his family escaped safely, but firefighters had to knock down two of their walls to extinguish the blaze.

The 67-year-old stood beside his daughter and granddaughter in pajamas for three hours as firefighters worked to make sure the brick row house in the 600 block of Allendale St. would be safe to return to. After firefighters ensured the carbon dioxide level was safe, the family was allowed back in their home and able to crawl back into bed.

“I thought we were going to lose everything,” Arthur said. “Thank God no lives were taken. We can always get another place but we can’t replace life.”

Though Arthur was glad his home suffered minimal damage, he expressed frustration with city officials over their response to the fire. He said nobody has come to check on his family and he hasn’t heard anything about the fire investigation.

“We didn’t start the fire — we were victims,” Arthur said. “I know we have murders in this city, and I’m sad about it but I consider this just as tragic. Somebody could’ve lost their life and they’re acting like the fire never happened, like we don’t count.

City officials said they are working to cover up boarded homes and provide additional homeless outreach in the area. Last month, the mayor, the police commissioner and fire chief toured a section of Carrollton Ridge where the blazes had broken out. Residents expressed concerns about the charred homes being a target for future blazes if left unsecured. Vacant homes don’t have power, heat and alarm systems, which can be a hazard for drug users or homeless people who sometimes occupy them.

James Bentley, a spokesman for Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young, said the city has focused police, fire and homeless resources into the area in recent months.

Homeless outreach workers have been canvassing abandoned houses around Edmondson Village neighborhoods, who help try to connect homeless with services. He said the city has also worked to board up abandoned properties in the neighborhoods.

Cynthia Tensley, the Carrollton Ridge Community Association president, said this week the many of the burned homes had been secured but residents were still concerned about more fires cropping up.

“There was a time everybody was afraid" after the fires, she said. Even the drug dealers were affected, she said, disrupted by added police and fire presence and hyper-vigilant residents fearful of more fires.

But now that four people have been killed in the neighborhood since December, she said her neighbors’ concerns have again shifted to the violence.

“It’s back and forth between the shootings and fires,” she said.

She said she believes the police and fire departments have done the best they can, given the city’s limited resources.

“They had the patrols and police officers basically around the clock, patrolling the neighborhood,” she said, but added they could not be everywhere at once. "They did as much as they could do.”

Diggs too said he feels like law enforcement and the fire department are doing their part with increased patrols and community policing, but that city leaders have fallen short in giving the neighborhood the resources it needs overall the shootings and fires

For example, the future of the Edmondson Village Shopping Center, is still in limbo after it was gutted by the November fire. With few other shops in the area, its absence leaves many struggling to get basic necessities.

“If you have your councilman, senator and former mayor all [living] within blocks of the neighborhood and it still looks like this?” Diggs said. “I don’t know what your intentions are.”

Tensley said she believes the problem is too big for city officials alone. She said she would like to see a continued increased presence of law enforcement in her community, which she said for decades has been overtaken by drug dealing. Tensley said the police department doesn’t have the resource to provide that level of enforcement but she would like to see federal agencies come into the neighborhood and then more social programs to help uplift residents.

"There has to be some kind of stabilization” with crime so residents feel safe and can seek other opportunities, she said.

Diggs, who also runs a mentorship program in city schools, said recently that almost every day a child asks him if their home will be the next one to burn down. Many tell Diggs they are terrified to go to sleep at night.

So, he calms them down. He reminds the kids that he doesn’t think anyone is targeting them. To put a positive spin on it, he says at least the fires are drawing attention to a neighborhood that needs help.

“Even though you feel the pain, these people need to see the light in someone else’s eyes,” Diggs said. “Adults are scared. But our future, our kids, are the ones suffering the most.”


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