Monday, February 7, 2011

Fire Marshall Reports on York Fires

The Bellingham Fire Marshal has issued his reports on the fires at 1404 Grant St and 1418 Ellis St. earlier this January. The Grant St. fire displaced its 4 renters, three of whom present would have perished had not one of them decided to get out of bed to eat. The fire on Ellis St. was contained to one unit in a home that had reportedly been renovated into several apartments. You can read about these events by clicking here, here and here.

The fire marshal investigates in order to rule out arson. He will provide information on the cause of the blaze but does not rule on who is at fault. This is done by an investigator so that fault may be assessed for insurance purposes. Unfortunately, these results may not be made public in the near future or ever for that matter.

Images of the appropriate portions of the report of the fire marshal on these two fires are on the left (click on them to enlarge). The Grant St. fire originated in an electrical junction box located in the attic above a bathroom. The cause was likely "arcing from loose connections" The report also indicated that "Smoke alarms were not installed in residence." (Further contact with the fire marshal revealed that this sentence means that there were no functioning smoke alarms in the home.) Two of the residents personally told the Zonemaven that they had reported this to the management company before the holidays. They had also indicated that the electrical system was also giving them trouble in the form of flickering lights and tripped circuit breakers.

As for the fire on Ellis St. it appears that the cause was a fan attached to a gas heater that had tripped a circuit breaker repeatedly the day before. The fan was held in place by bolts that were undersized allowing the fan to fall off the heater onto the rug where the fire started. The investigation also revealed that the house was rewired years ago, however, the installation was not inspected for compliance with codes. Earlier news reports indicated the smoke detector did not work.

Landlords will complain that they install smoke detectors that are then sabotaged by the tenants or not maintained by the tenants who neglect to replace the batteries. I might remind the landlords that the smoke alarms are the last line of defense and that it is the underlying condition of the home that is the basic question. Working smoke alarms do not make a rental safer, they merely protect the renter from possible harm if there is a fire. But smoke alarms do not help with issues of mold, plumbing, vermin, structural deficiencies, etc. With these issues the first indicator of a problem is often disease or injury.

During the Zonemaven's appearance on The Joe Show (click here to refresh your memory on that event), Mr. Perry Eskridge, Government Affairs Director of the Whatcom County Association of Realtors®, phoned with some comments on the Grant St. fire. He spoke to having had contact with the owner of the property who informed him that the home had been renovated in 1982 with monies from a block grant and that it conformed to code as of that date. The home had also been inspected by Housing and Urban Development (HUD). He further stated that 7 smoke alarms had been installed in the property in 2007 and that the tenant had the contractual responsibility to replace the batteries. Mr. Eskridge said also that there were three space heaters plugged into one outlet.

It seems to me that a house that was up to code in 1982 might need a bit of work by 2011 or, at least, a periodic inspection. In Bellingham, though, that is not necessary. As for the smoke alarm installation of 2007, I wonder the reason for which the management company did not take action on its own during that period. Does the company not make periodic visits to ensure the health and safety of the tenants as well as the condition of the building? (The Washington State landlord tenant law allows the landlord to enter the home with a 48hr notice.) Had no members of the management team entered the premises for four years? Was there turnover of the tenants during that period? As for the space heaters, one might ask the reason for which the tenants felt a need to install such devices. One usually does not use space heaters unless the central heating system is inadequate.

As mentioned above, because the fire is now under investigation by inspectors to determine fault for insurance purposes, we may never know the entire story. These matters tend to remain private, unless perhaps one of the former tenants takes the owner to court. Or, we can avoid most of these incidents by having a licensing and inspection program in Bellingham that will protect BOTH the tenant and the landlord.


Anonymous said...

Out of curiosity, what percentage of fires in Whatcom county occur in rental homes?
As for the mysterious space heaters, I'll offer an answer: students cannot afford the rates charged by CNG or each tenant has personal preference when it comes to a comfortable room temperature.

Zonemaven said...

My focus is on safety and health conditions in rentals in the city of Bellingham so I am not familiar with the data capture in other areas of Whatcom County. I do know that the narrative descriptions of the fires in Bellingham often contain information about the residents (homeowner or renter) but I am not sure that this information is readily retrievable without reading all fire reports and collating the data by hand. Otherwise, all occupants of the house at the time of the fire are listed but without indication of their status (e.g. renter)

As for the space heaters, your answer is also plausible. But the fact that all three were allegedly plugged into the same outlet might argue against your hypothesis.