Flames poured out of the second and third windows of an abandoned rowhome, lighting the early morning sky. Crews from multiple fire engines rushed inside, but within minutes the interior of the building collapsed, killing three firefighters and badly wounding a fourth. It was the Baltimore City Fire Department’s worst on-duty loss of life since the mid 1950s
“It was really heartbreaking for everybody there,” Councilwoman Odette Ramos told Fox News. “We just have to do more. We just can’t let something like that happen again.”
The house on Stricker Street had been vacant for more than 10 years and experienced two previous fires, according to BCFD. The first fire, in 2015, resulted in a partial collapse that injured three firefighters and left the building compromised. Then on Jan. 24, 2022, Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler and firefighter Kenny Lacayo lost their lives.
Ramos took the news personally: Cleaning up the city’s vacant buildings has been one of her long-term priorities.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time and it is not enough,” she said. “And people have died.”
More than 14,000 vacant buildings are scattered across Baltimore, costing the city around $100 million per year in maintenance, fire department and police resources, according to a recent Johns Hopkins University initiative report. Baltimore had one of the highest vacancy rates in the country in 2019 at 8.1%.
A BCFD report after the firefighters’ deaths highlighted concerns with vacant buildings, which the department said burn at twice the national average in Baltimore.
“It is believed that most fires in vacant buildings are intentionally set,” the report reads, adding that vacant properties are “commonly used for drug activity and are illegally occupied by the homeless who light small fires for heat or cooking.”
The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives determined the deadly 2022 fire was intentionally set and ruled their deaths a homicide, but no arrests have been made.
Sean DeCrane of the International Association of Fire Fighters said Baltimore isn’t alone in its struggle with vacant buildings.
“Vacant buildings have been a challenge since probably the origins of the fire service,” DeCrane said. “This is an issue that we see nationwide. Big cities, small cities, large buildings, small buildings.”
While vacant buildings account for less than 10% of all structure fires, they cause a disproportionate share of firefighter injuries, according to the National Fire Protection Association.
“We don’t know the state of the building. We don’t know the structural integrity of the building. We don’t know what is in those buildings,” DeCrane said. “Could there be a possibility that someone is inside?”
What’s unique about Baltimore is the prevalence of rowhomes, a series of houses with shared walls and roof. If a fire starts in one house, it can be harder to contain than a fire in a house with defensible space surrounding it.
“Which is why people are really scared when they’re next to vacant properties,” Ramos said.
Ramos spoke with Fox News from a neighborhood in northeastern Baltimore where crumbling rowhouses lined the street, sheets of plywood replaced doors and paper notices read “vacant property.” Reflective red signs warned firefighters that the buildings are structurally unsound — an initiative spurred by the firefighters’ deaths.
An excavator rumbled nearby.
“You see some demolition here because the city has this new policy,” Ramos said. “Because of how dangerous some of these beacons are for, not just firefighters, but for others, we’re demolishing based on the severity of how bad the roof is and things like that.”
But demolishing or finding buyers for the vacant properties can take years — the Stricker Street home has been abandoned since 2008 and had around $50,000 in liens against it. That’s why Ramos and Councilman James Torrence say they’ve introduced legislation to allow a quasi-governmental Land Bank Authority to acquire abandoned properties and sell them, with the goal of cutting down on auctions and city red tape.
Ramos and DeCrane both agree local governments need to do more to tackle the problem. While there is national guidance on marking unsafe buildings, DeCrane said it is challenging to get cities to comply.
“If they’re hazardous, we need to label them,” DeCrane said. He also wants to see more investments in razing unsafe properties.
The vacant property crisis is an “all hands on deck situation,” Ramos said, but it’s one she’s confident the city can tackle.
“This is what our firefighters do is they go in to save lives,” she said. “It’s our obligation not just to them, but to the entire neighborhood to address the vacant properties.”