Thursday, February 16, 2012

Cause of 24th Street Rental Fire Still Undetermined

Determining the specific cause of the tragic New Year's Day fire in a duplex rental on 24th Street in Bellingham may take yet more time as the investigation has been turned over to an insurance company. [You can read press reports about the fire by clicking here, here, here, here and here.] Unfortunately, the insurer's report may not be ultimately divulged to the Fire Department or to the public. Moreover, threats of lawsuits often loom over such incidents as we have seen with the Maple Street fire in which the threat of a lawsuit made the victims unavailable to the Zonemaven for further information gathering. You can refresh your memory of that fire by clicking here.

Earlier attempts by fire investigators to gather information from the victims of the 24th St. fire were thwarted due to their medical condition. The initial fire marshal's report on the incident, that you can read by clicking here and here, lacked much in the way of detail that would allow the public to learn some definitive lessons from the tragedy.

In several exchanges with fire officials, I learned that there are still questions with regard to the condition of the baseboard heating element. Part of the cover of the baseboard heater was missing and not found in the debris. Also missing were some of the "fins" on the heating element. Aluminum branch circuit wiring was also found leading to the heater. Use of aluminum wiring is considered to be very dangerous although there was a time during the 1970s when this type of wiring was prevalent in homes. This particular home was built in 1975 according to county records. (Click here to read more on aluminum wiring) How many other Bellingham rentals, built in the 70s, have such wiring yet today? A ticking time bomb.

A defective heating element or one that was damaged or installed improperly is of great concern. Additionally, there were no remains of smoke detectors found in the debris after the fire, although fire department personnel were not specifically looking for them. [The one eye-witness report from the guest sleeping on the sofa indicated that he did not appear to be awakened by a smoke detector but by the fire itself.] The presence of such devices (in working condition) is an important fire safety concern for all renters as these detectors are a last line of defense. A blocked exit ( furniture against a window) may have also been a factor in the inability of some of the victims to get out of the home and in rescuing the fire victims.

Also displaced by the fire were two Western Washington University students who shared the duplex. Over a dozen WWU students have been displaced from their rentals in the past year because of fires. That, in itself should be a wake up call for a comprehensive rental safety and health ordinance requiring periodic inspection of all rentals by a certified code enforcement official. Such action can provide early detection and elimination of the threats posed by poor rental conditions and dangerous tenant or landlord behavior. Blocked exits, bad electrical wiring and faulty heating systems are on the checklist of most effective rental inspection programs throughout the country. That should be the case here in Bellingham with the passage of a rental health and safety inspection ordinance - with teeth.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Vermin in Rentals

We have already seen evidence of rats in Bellingham's rentals. My blog entry on a house on Grant St. covered that topic a while back. (Click here to read that horror story.) Now additional accounts of vermin in rentals are coming to our attention. A recent article in the Western Front spoke to the problems students are encountering in their dorms and rentals not only with bed bugs but also with the mites that cause scabies and bacteria that cause staph infections. (Click here to read the Front's story. You can also read about bed bugs, mites and staph by clicking here, here and here)

These critters; bed bugs, mites, and bacteria that lead to staph infections, are difficult to eradicate so that many landlords and renters unwittingly pass them on to the next iteration of renters. Given the filthy conditions reported by renters in last year's survey of rental conditions in Bellingham (click here to read that report), the story in the Front is not surprising. The comments from those who took the survey contain additional stories of rat and flea infestations.

Rentals offered to the public ought to be spotless before the renter crosses the threshold. Especially important are clean rugs, floors and kitchen/bathroom surfaces. These items should be on the checklist of any decent inspection program for the safety and health of renters. The city of Pasco has sanitation as a category on its inspection form (Click here to see their simple form - right click on image and then enlarge). Bellingham should consider no less.