Fire danger for mobile homes
Innovative Electric co-owners Luis Oropeza Jr., left, and Bill Culley discuss fire safety before demonstrating how to install a smoke detector Friday in their Lompoc office. The two donated and installed smoke detectors for senior citizens in January and February and plan to do it again in October and November. //Leah Thompson/Staff

Without precautions, many Lompoc mobile home residents may be courting tragedy.

In the last three years there have been three deaths in the city resulting from mobile-home fires. 

The two most recent victims — 18-year-old Nicholas Perez and 19-year-old Alicia Van Wagenen — perished in January when an electrical short, no working smoke detector, and a cluttered entryway created a deadly situation.

Since 2003 there have been at least six fires that have left mobile homes in ash. In several of those situations, lives were at risk, like in 2005 when a 91-year-old resident was taking a nap when a kitchen fire broke out. In 2009, an elderly woman was pulled from her burning mobile home by police officers.

Lompoc is known for having some of the most affordable housing prices in the county, due in part to the city’s nine trailer parks.

“It’s about the only affordable housing around, especially for seniors,” according to Paul Goode, manager of Mountainview Mobile Estates, 610 E. Pine Ave., a seniors-only mobile-home park.

According to city fire and building safety officials, some of those mobile homes — particularly those built prior to the enactment of tougher building regulations in the 1970s — are at greater risk for catastrophic and fatal fires than other types of homes.

Lompoc Fire Department Battalion Chief Stan Hart said that is because some mobile homes are what he terms “light construction.”

“Small studs, and aluminum. It burns faster, so the amount of time to get out safely is shorter,” said Hart.

According to  the California Department of Housing and Community Development, division of Codes and Standards, there was a significant increase in the quality of mobile homes built after 1971 in California and nationwide after 1976. The changes made it mandatory for newer mobile homes to be less flammable.

“Prior to ’71, most of these things were tinderboxes,” said Chris Anderson, of the state Division of Codes and Standards. “But today’s manufactured homes offer the same, if not a bit better, life-safety fire protection compared to other residential construction.”

The national Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) conducted a study in 2005, looking over fire data, and concluded that the post-1976 mobile-home construction standards cut fire deaths in half compared to the older models.

Plenty of the older mobile homes are still in use today, however. According to Raquel Gonzalez, manager of the Del Norte Mobile Estates, 321 W. North Ave., roughly 40 percent of the mobile homes were built before the tougher standards.

At the 188-space Mountain View Mobile Estates, the site of the fatal January fire, roughly half of the homes were also built pre-1976, according to Goode.

Since mobile homes count as private residences, park managers do not have the authority to enter them to inspect for potential fire hazards, or working smoke detectors.

“In our rules and regulations, we do say it’s the resident’s responsibility to check smoke detectors,” said Gonzalez.

“We can only preach fire safety,” said Goode.

Following the most recent fire, Goode said the park hosted a fire safety workshop for the residents, put on by the Lompoc Fire Department.

“We had about 45 residents show up, who hopefully left with some good ideas about how to be safer,” said Goode.

Residents who are hoarders can exacerbate the fire danger by filling up their mobile home with collections that block exits. In both the 2009 and 2011 fatal fires, at least one entryway was blocked by piles of hoarded items.

During a recent workshop on community hoarding, Hart said that in the 2011 fire, hoarding played a definite role — firefighters were unable to reach the two victims in time to save their lives.

Anderson said hoarding represents an ongoing fire and health hazard to all types of residences. He said a mobile-home fire in Bakersfield in January was a hoarding situation, where there was no working smoke detector.

“Unfortunately, we had four people die in that one,” and Anderson.

Hart and Anderson emphasized an easily installed, and  inexpensive addition to any mobile home to increase its safety — the smoke detector.

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“Cheapest insurance policy people can take out on their homes, and their families,” said Anderson.

“Early warning is crucial, since the structure might burn down quicker,” said Hart.

After 1976, all mobile homes  in the nation were required to be built with smoke detectors installed. However, the NFPA found that in upwards of 40 percent of post-1976 homes visited by firefighters, the detectors were either removed or non-functioning.

  Bill Culley, a co-owner of Innovative Electric Co. in Lompoc, said fire victim “Allie” Van Wagenen was a friend, so after her death, he decided he wanted to do something to prevent another tragedy.

“I’ve worked in mobile homes where fires have started behind furniture, luckily gone out, and the owners did not even know about it,” said Culley. 

For the past two months, Innovative Electric has been offering free smoke detector checks for all city residents, and installing new smoke detectors for the elderly. He said the free inspections and installations would be done again in October and November.

“Who knows,” said Culley, “we quite likely may have saved a life.” 

Fire safety tips

 Mobile home or otherwise, there are several simple steps residents can take to improve their fire safety:

  • Maintain smoke and carbon dioxide detectors — a detector for each bedroom and main room is preferable. Change the batteries every time you change your clocks for daylight savings time.
  • Keep doorways clutter-free — maintaining a clear path in and out will help you and first responders. Call the fire department about dangerous hoarding situations.
  • Have wiring/heating inspected — especially for older homes. Electrical fires are the number one cause of fire in mobile homes according to the National Fire Protection Agency.

Source: Lompoc Fire

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