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Baltimore firefighter conscious and alert after deadly building collapse

Three firefighters died Monday fighting a blaze in a vacant building. More than 15,000 properties sit vacant in Baltimore, making fires a constant danger.

Baltimore firefighters embrace at the scene of a vacant rowhouse fire that left three first responders dead. (Jerry Jackson/AP)
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A Baltimore firefighter who survived after being trapped in a burning vacant rowhouse was conscious and alert the day after being placed on life support, city fire officials said Tuesday.

EMT/firefighter John McMaster is now in fair condition following the Monday fire that left three of his colleagues dead, the department said.

“While he has a long way to go, I am incredibly optimistic, and we will continue to pray for and support EMT/FF McMaster and his family during his time of recovery,” Baltimore Fire Chief Niles R. Ford said in a statement.

McMaster’s condition improved as officials continue to investigate the cause of the fire that killed Lt. Paul Butrim, firefighter/paramedic Kelsey Sadler and firefighter/paramedic Kenny Lacayo. The firefighters had been fighting a blaze around sunrise inside a vacant property in the 200 block of South Stricker Street.

A couple of minutes after firefighters arrived on scene, a battalion chief who just arrived can be heard on scanner traffic saying: “Back out, back out, back out. Do we have anybody in there? We just had a collapse. Mayday, mayday, mayday.” During the minutes that followed, firefighters can be heard trying to rescue their colleagues trapped inside.

At a news conference Monday, Ford said firefighters went into the building to prevent the blaze from spreading to a nearby occupied structure.

“They made the determination that they could control the fire and put it out,” Ford said. “It’s up to those individuals that get on the scene and see the circumstances that they had to make that decision and they did.”

Baltimore, like many other aging American cities, is plagued by abandoned properties, and experts say fires in vacant buildings can be especially dangerous.

Three Baltimore firefighters die after burning rowhouse collapses

“It is a firefighter trap when you have these vacant structures,” retired Prince George’s County fire chief Marc Bashoor said.

More than 15,000 buildings in Baltimore have been issued Vacant Building Notices (VBNs), Tammy Hawley, chief of strategic communications for the Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development, said in a statement. Of the 15,000, just under 1,300 properties are owned by the city, while the rest are privately owned. Several years ago, the city had more than 17,000 buildings unoccupied.

A vacant building notice was issued for the property at 205 South Stricker Street in 2010, according to Hawley, and the property was condemned in 2015 as a result of an earlier fire.

Three firefighters were injured while responding to smoke and fire at the property in 2015, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The property has liens against it and had been cited in the past for having no registration, which is required annually for all “non-owner occupied property including vacant lots and vacant buildings,” according to Hawley.

“The property also has been offered in tax sale in the past because of outstanding taxes and fines. There was no market for this property,” Hawley said in a statement.

An inspector last inspected the property on Jan. 4, and found it boarded and clean, according to Hawley.

Efforts by The Washington Post to reach the property owner Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Hawley said the city continually works to keep watch over vacant buildings.

“Our efforts include injunctions, citations, criminal penalties, receivership, and tax sale foreclosures. We constantly work to determine which structures are most at risk, and roughly $8 million a year is expended to demolish properties. In addition, Housing Code Enforcement conducts over 200,000 inspections annually, and an average of 500 receivership cases are filed per year where we work to get properties into the hands of owners who will properly maintain them,” Hawley said.

Block by block, Baltimore is demolishing its blight – and pieces of its past

Baltimore spends millions each year knocking vacant buildings down, including by a demolition crew on standby 24 hours a day for emergencies.

“The thing that we deal with in Baltimore is just the sheer volume of vacant properties,” said John T. Bullock, a city council member whose district includes much of West Baltimore, including the site of the fire.

About a third of the city’s unoccupied, often unstable properties are scattered throughout Bullock’s district. The staggering number makes code enforcement and neighborhood stabilization a struggle, he said.

“There is some success, but it’s still balanced out by the fact that you still have some population loss,” Bullock said. “You still have more vacants that are coming online.”

Fires in these buildings are a constant danger.

“They are a target,” Bullock said. “Whether we’re talking about an accidental fire with someone who was a squatter in the property or someone who sets the fire purposefully through arson.”

Though buildings are called “vacant,” many are often occupied by squatters or people without homes, said Stephan Fugate, retired captain in the Baltimore City Fire Department, who served for about 40 years.

“There has to be more action on the part of the city to deal with the problem,” Fugate said of vacant buildings.