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'I wish it was just a dream': 3 deadly fires in two weeks on Milwaukee’s South Side

21st & Scott fatal fire
Posted at 5:48 PM, Feb 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 18:50:37-05

MILWAUKEE — For the third time in two weeks, a fire has claimed the life of a resident on Milwaukee’s South Side.

Family tells TMJ4 News the 57-year-old victim in the fire near 21st & Scott Street is Martin Rodriguez.

“I have no words,” Michi Morales, his daughter said. “It’s something terrible that I wish it was just a dream and not true. I just cannot accept it that my father passed away.”

Morales says her father survived COVID-19, despite a severe stroke he suffered.

57-year-old Martin Rodriguez
57-year-old Martin Rodriguez spent time in the hospital with COVID-19 and survived, despite a massive stroke. He was killed in a fatal fire Tuesday in his home near 21st & Scott.

Morales and her family are the third such family in a roughly 10 block radius mourning a loss like this in the last two weeks. A fire on Jan. 28 killed a 72-year-old man near 19th & Burnham Street. Over a week later, on Feb. 5, a 55-year-old woman was killed near 29th & Mitchell Street.

It’s an area of the city with a higher poverty rate than average, at 21.7 percent, and a large minority population. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “the incidence of poverty has been shown to be associated with increased fire risk, poverty in and of itself does not cause fires.”

“We have to do everything we can to make sure we’re addressing this issue on our near South Side and across the City of Milwaukee,” Ald. JoCasta Zamarripa said.

Zamarripa was joined by Mayor Tom Barrett and Acting Chief Aaron Lipski near the most recent deadly fire. The group says they will do everything they can to ensure this does not happen again.

“The primary thing citizens can do to help us is to ensure they have a working smoke alarm,” Lipski said.

Lipski says, since January 1, Milwaukee Fire has responded to 54 structure fires, with about 40 on the North Side and 10 on the South Side.

He says they are still waiting on reports but they’re trying to look at trends. He says 17 fire causes have been listed as undetermined, 18 are accidental and 4 are incendiary.

One thing he noted, in eight of these fires, including one of the recent fatal fires, the cause was from the careless use or disposal of smoking materials. To put that into context, he says one of the fires was due to a space heater, something considered a more common occurrence.

Our reporting partners at Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service report 7 fire stations have been shut down for budgetary reasons since 2018, including 4 on the South Side. Lipski says, despite the difficulties, this presents the department as a whole, he doesn’t believe this had an impact on these recent tragic outcomes.

“In each of these cases, we did have a fairly normal first alarm assignment responding,” Lipski said. “I would have to say, in these cases, I can’t quantify a station closure directly impacted in one direction or another. We did have our regular responding company going to those fires. It’s an absolutely brutal thing to have to go through. We spend a ton of time and energy to try and make it not happen. When we lose, it impacts every single one of us. We take that quite personally and we do everything we can to minimize or reduce future such occurrences.”

Mayor Tom Barrett backed up the Acting Chief’s claims but says he is working to try and increase budgetary help from the state.

“I’ve been on the phone, just today, with a number of state legislators to say, we have to hit the fiscal reset button in our relationship with state government,” Barrett said. “Because of the cuts that have been required, not just in the fire department but the police department, the health department, the library, all of those are real cuts because of our fiscal relationship with the state.”

Barrett also encouraged residents to do what they can to help themselves by following these six tips.

  1. Have a smoke alarm
    1. The Milwaukee Fire Department can provide them for free by calling 414-286-8980.
  2. Test the smoke alarm
    1. Mayor Barrett suggests testing it at least once a month.
  3. Create a home fire escape plan
    1. This way the family knows what to do when an emergency strikes.
  4. Have a meeting place outside
    1. A rendezvous point makes it easier to account for who made it out safely.
  5. Use a maximum of one heat producing appliance in a single outlet in the home.
    1. It’s not just space heaters. Toasters, coffee pots, anything that kicks out heat, should be the only one of its kind plugged into an individual outlet.
  6. Check the attic and basement
    1. Mayor Barrett says, those areas are where electrical and heating equipment can cause fires you may not be aware of.

In addition to these tips, and providing free smoke detectors, Ald. Zamarripa is looking to hold landlords accountable so these kinds of disparities don’t impact communities. Zamarripa’s district is home to a larger Latino population. According to the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, 61.8 percent of Latino residents in Milwaukee are not homeowners.

Moreover, a Marquette Law Study shows half of the rental properties in the city are owned by someone who lives outside of Milwaukee. Zamarripa wants to make sure they’re held accountable.

“We know at least two of [the fatal fires] were rental properties,” Zamarripa said. “We know now, at least two of them did not have working smoke alarms. We do have to make sure we hold landlords accountable in the district and City of Milwaukee. I am exploring what we can do on enforcement for landlords renting single family homes in the city or duplexes. I am exploring legislation to look into that.”

For more information on getting a free smoke detector, call 414-286-8980.

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