“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 earlier this month within a mile and a half of each other 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 last month of two men who have been charged in three blazes but have not announced other arrests.
Officials have not said what caused most of the fires, citing an ongoing investigation, but they said the department continues to monitor the situation.
The fire department has stationed additional firefighters to “canvass” the Carrollton Ridge neighborhood “to provide visibility and to maintain a presence with community members,” Blair Adams, a fire department spokeswoman, said in a statement last week.
She said firefighters continue to attend community meetings to address residents’ questions and concerns.
Baltimore police investigated 88 arson cases last year, of which 35 were closed, and officers made 26 arrests. In 2018, there were 92 fires ruled arson, 29 of which were closed. Officers made 28 arrests that year. The department is weighing a recommendation by an outside consultant to move arson investigations to the fire department, freeing up more officers for the overstretched police force.
Adams said last week that she could not provide data on how many fires occurred in the Southwest police district last year or in previous years, or how many of those fires occurred in vacant buildings, which can pose added dangers.
The city has worked to reduce the number of vacant homes in recent years, but despite ongoing demolitions, it cannot keep up. An analysis last year of the city’s more than 16,000 vacant buildings found that six Southwest Baltimore neighborhoods, including Edmondson Village and Carrollton Ridge, continued to see increases in vacant homes.
Diggs has witnessed the uptick, too.
Of all the vacant homes torched in the area, he said he knows of only 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. Nearly 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 earlier this month 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 rowhouse in the 600 block of Allendale Street 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 that nobody has come to check on his family and that he hasn’t heard anything about the 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 board up vacant homes and provide additional homeless outreach in the area. Last month, the mayor, the police commissioner and the fire chief toured a section of Carrollton Ridge where fires broke out. Residents expressed concern about the charred homes being a target for blazes if left unsecured. Vacant homes don’t have power, heat or alarm systems, which makes them hazardous 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 on the area in recent months.
Bentley said Thursday that 16 homes related to the fires have been boarded up recently and that another is expected to be done this week.
Cynthia Tensley, the Carrollton Ridge Community Association president, said last week that many of the burned homes had been secured but that residents remain concerned about more fires cropping up.
“There was a time everybody was afraid” after the fires, she said — even the drug dealers.
But now that four people have been killed in the neighborhood since December, she said her neighbors’ concerns have returned 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 said that he feels as though 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.
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 buy 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.”
Diggs, who runs a mentorship program in Baltimore schools, said recently that almost every day a child asks him whether their home will be the next one to burn down. Many tell him they are terrified to go to sleep at night.
He calms them down. He reminds them that he doesn’t think anyone is targeting them. To put a positive spin on it, he said 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.”