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.


Kamran said...

Glad to see you are still pushing this cause! :).

Zonemaven said...

There is some reason to expect that the city council will relook the matter in 2012.