Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Tale of Two Space Heaters

Two recent area fires involved the improper use of space heaters. One incident took place on January 19th in Bellingham on Cedarwood Rd . The owner of a vacant house, who also owns several other small homes in Bellingham, attempted to keep an unheated crawl space warm enough to avoid frozen water pipes by putting a space heater underneath the home. In a similar fire in Ferndale, renters were burned out of their house after they placed a space heater under the home, also in an attempt to keep water pipes from freezing. You can read the Herald account of the fires by clicking here. The Fire Chief's press release on the Bellingham fire can be read here and the investigative report from the Fire Marshal here.

The commonality of these two fires is, of course, the improper use of the space heaters. Here we have an instance in which both a landlord and a renter were ignorant of safety issues. Critics of inspection of rentals for safety and health reasons often state that landlords have sufficient knowledge to care for their units and that renters can depend upon either themselves or their landlords to ensure rentals are safe. These two stories belie such contentions.

Note the condition of this vacant property on Cedarwood to begin with. It is in very poor condition. Homes like these attract vagrants and vermin while their appearance depresses property values in the neighborhood. Moreover such dilapidated structures are a fire danger to adjacent homes, especially in this case in that the houses in this area tend to have been built close together. In this particular instance, two homes share a single lot with little space separating them.

Our city council last year was considering an ordinance that, had it been approved, would have had as its theme going after the "bad apples" so as not to "punish" all the good landlords. Exactly how these "bad apples" were to be identified was not so apparent. The owner of this vacant home has several other properties in Bellingham, although the one on Cedarwood happened to be empty. There is no indication that he is a "bad apple", yet clearly he operated unaware of basic safety. He may be, for all intents and purposes, a good landlord notwithstanding the fact that he lacks knowledge, an ignorance that could be a threat to those living in the other three properties he owns.

The fact is that , although the city council has refused to accept it, there is no way to find all the "bad apples" absent an inspection program that looks at all rentals. Any reliance on a renter complaint-based program is doomed to failure for that is the present state of affairs. The health department does not go after the "bad apple" restaurants nor do they rely solely on complaints or self-inspections. It looks at all restaurants and all restaurants pay into the system to finance these inspections. This is basic common sense that the public recognizes and supports. Nobody purposely takes his family to a filthy restaurant nor do we expect diners to check out the kitchen with their own punch list. We count on our local authorities to ensure that these establishments are safe and pose no health problem. Why should we expect less of landlords who offer their properties to the public for money?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Yet Another Rental House Fire in Bellingham

Blog entry deleted. See posting of 28 Jan 2012: A Tale of Two Space Heaters.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Western Front Editorial Again Calls for Rental Inspections

For the second time in two years the Western Front's editorial board has affirmed its support for an ordinance that would ensure the health and safety of renters in Bellingham. In a 6 January editorial, that also recommended that students obtain renters' insurance, the board stated, 'This editorial board supports rental licensing that would protect the students and families that inhabit Bellingham’s 18,000 rental properties." [You can read the board's complete editorial by clicking here. The Western Front's earlier, 2010 editorial on the subject can be found here.]

Students have good reason to be concerned. Here is the tally of near fire disasters in the last twelve months:

- A fire on Grant Street in the York Neighborhood burns. Three WWU students nearly perish. All four renters displaced. Click here to read more.

- A fire at the Daylight Building on State Street leads the fire marshal to discover that an apartment in the building has no viable fire exit for several of the rooms. Two students displaced. Click here to read more.

- A fire on Maple Street nearly kills three of the five renters, all of whom are WWU students. They lose everything in the fire. Click here to read more.

- A fire on 24th Street nearly kills an entire family in a rental home. Two students in an adjacent part of the duplex are displaced due to fire damage. Fire marshal's report pending. Read the Western Front article on the student victims here.

The tally? Thirteen students directly affected by serious fires, several of which nearly cost lives. All of these fires were electrical in origin as was another fire on Ellis Street that apparently did not involve WWU students. All of these blazes were largely preventable, especially had the city an inspection program in place.

These fires are not the only dangers facing students and other renters in Bellingham. Serious problems with mold, structural defects, blocked exits (24th Street fire!), carbon monoxide leaks, gas leaks, faulty heating systems, faulty plumbing, vermin, and all types of filth abound. I remind my readers of the survey done by a WWU student group last year that revealed the remarkable extent of the problems with conditions in rentals. (You can review the survey here.) I urge my readers to re-examine this survey and write to our council members ( to ask them to enact an ordinance to license rentals and ensure the health and safety of the renters with regular physical verification of conditions by certified building/home inspectors.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More on the Maple Street Fire

Late last year a rental home burned on Maple St. (click here to read my original post on the fire) and five young women students from WWU lost all their belongings. Those present in the home also barely escaped with their lives. Two of the five women had been away at the time of the fire. Had it not been for two of the remaining three who heard the first floor smoke alarm, a third woman, who had been sleeping upstairs, might have died since she did not hear the alarm. Her comment to me (in an anonymous post to my blog entry on the fire) was "Not only was there not an extinguisher, I was the girl who didn't wake up. The fire alarm only went off downstairs, not in my room."

Research has shown that some people; the hearing impaired, small children and even teens; do not respond at all or respond very slowly to smoke alarms. Given that the amount of time needed to escape from a burning home is measured in minutes, the obvious conclusions can be drawn. The report on the fire (click here to read the fire marshal's report) supports the fact that one of the residents was not awakened by the alarm.

Other questions regarding the fire and the general condition of the home are yet unanswered. I have yet to speak to the fire marshal, who is now busy preparing a report of investigation on a subsequent fire on New Year's Day. Unfortunately, any further details from the victims of the fire are now unavailable as I have learned that either the landlord or his insurance company has threatened to sue the tenants over the loss of the rental. My one phone conversation with one of the renters was, therefore, limited in nature and revealed nothing regarding either the fire or the general condition of the rental home. My contact with another individual close to the family also has been effectively limited by the threat of legal ramifications on an eventual suit. Unless this incident actually goes to court, we, the people of Bellingham, are unlikely to learn more about the fire. Similarly, insurance investigations on this property and on the same landlord's property on Grant St. that burned earlier in 2011 - click here to read about that- are not public documents. Again the public is denied information that affects the health and safety of all renters in Bellingham.

As for the terrible fire in a rental on 24th Street, which ushered in the New Year for our fire department, the fire marshal's report has yet to be issued. That fire, which seriously injured members of the MacGregor family, also appears to have originated with baseboard heating. This may indicate that there is a more generalized problem regarding electric baseboard heating. (Read a report from the National Fire Protection Association on selected baseboard heating fires by clicking here.) Furthermore, none of the press reports has indicated the presence of operable smoke alarms in that rental. I will have further information on that blaze later this month.

[See below for information on efforts to provide support to the victims of this most recent fire. This information was obtained from the Bellingham Herald article of 8 Jan 2012:

"- Volunteer to collect donations at White's storage unit outside her home, 1029 22nd St. Call 360-305-4419 for more information.

- People can donate money to the MacGregor Family Benefit Account at any Peoples Bank location.

- A local Girl Scouts troop is raising money to buy the family a desktop computer. Email or visit for details."]

Read more here: