If you want to support the families of the three Baltimore firefighters who died on duty on Jan. 24 — Paul Butrim, Kenny Lacayo and Kelsey Sadler — you can make a donation to the Baltimore City Fire Foundation. It was established for that purpose.
In my weekend column in The Baltimore Sun, I propose another way to honor the firefighters and all others who have died battling fires in vacant properties: Establish a $1 billion fund at Baltimore Community Lending to turn thousands of abandoned city properties into homes and useful buildings for small businesses. This builds on my earlier suggestions that a major benefactor or foundation — my first suggestion was billionaire Michael Bloomberg — donate $1 billion to BCL expressly for the purpose of converting some of Baltimore’s 15,000-plus vacant properties. Over a decade, such an investment would be transformative, especially for long-neglected parts of East Baltimore and West Baltimore.
As my Sun colleagues Christine Condon and Emily Opilo recently reported: “Nationally, vacant building fires have an outsized impact on firefighter safety, a 2018 study by the National Fire Protection Association showed. Just 6% of all structure fires occur in vacant properties, but they account for 13% of firefighter injuries, according to the study. Between 2006 and 2016, 20 U.S. firefighters were killed fighting blazes in vacant buildings. The study also showed the rate of spread for fires in vacant buildings to surrounding structures is almost triple that of all structure fires combined.”
Prior to the January tragedy, the last Baltimore firefighter to die on duty was Lt. James Bethea. He died from smoke inhalation while responding to a fire in a vacant rowhouse in 2014.
Stat from the NFPA: In 2011-2015, U.S. fire departments responded to an estimated average of 30,200 structure fires per year in vacant properties. These fires resulted in an average of 60 civilian deaths, 160 civilian injuries, and $710 million in direct property damage per year.
Here’s my earlier pitch to Bloomberg to invest $1 billion in Baltimore properties still considered sound enough for conversion.
If $1 billion sounds crazy to you, think about that again. There are plenty of billionaires out there besides Bloomberg, several of whom signed The Giving Pledge to give away most of their fortunes. And billionaires being business savvy, they might find in this idea a real possibility that their contribution will have lasting impact. There are other sources for the money, too, and that includes those of us who want to see big change in Baltimore and fewer hazards for the men and women who put out fires.
Historic note: February 7-8 marks 118 years since the Great Baltimore Fire.