Residential fires cause immeasurable harm and heartache to U.S families and individuals every single day. Many of these fires are predictable and preventable, but they happen anyway, because investing in fire safety isn’t the priority that it should be for the corporate landowners who control most apartment complexes and mobile home parks.
The Stoddard Firm is committed to holding landlords accountable, and to helping people who’ve been injured or lost family in residential fires get the compensation they need to put their lives back together.
The Damage from Residential Fires Is Devastating
The idea of losing everything you own to a fire is terrifying enough to most people, but the idea of being caught in a fire yourself can be a little abstract if you’ve never been in this situation. In theory, aside from the emotional loss, walking away from a fire along a familiar exit route seems like it should be easy. In reality, however, the speed at which residential fires get out of control makes them a very serious threat to life and limb.
If the occupants of a burning building don’t escape immediately, the situation becomes increasingly deadly with each passing minute. The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) estimates the average air temperature inside a burning building as 1800 Fahrenheit when the fire is fully developed. That’s hot enough to kill a person in one breath through lung damage alone. For those who do escape before this point, the after-effects of serious burns and smoke inhalation can be disfiguring, disabling, and even life-threatening. In addition to direct tissue damage from the heat, building fires produce large amounts of poisonous carbon monoxide, which can kill outright or cause permanent injuries to the brain, heart, and other internal organs.
Many fire survivors also sustain secondary injuries, such as broken bones and lacerations, due to being struck by collapsing structures, or escaping through windows and other alternative routes after the main exit becomes blocked. That’s what one family was recently forced to do in South Fulton County. When they discovered that their condo complex was on fire and their front door already impassable, a grandmother and her grandchildren, as well as her pregnant daughter-in-law, had to jump from their balcony. The whole family managed to escape safely, but only thanks to the help of some heroic neighbors who stayed near the burning complex to catch the children.
Many fire survivors aren’t so lucky and end up facing a long, painful, costly physical recovery.
Apartments Are More Vulnerable to Fire than Traditional Single-Family Homes
When most people imagine residential fires, they think of housefires in detached, single-family homes. However, studies show that renters in apartment complexes are significantly more likely to suffer a residential fire than homeowners.
According to a survey of fire statistics from 2008-2017 conducted by the U.S Fire Administration (USFA), 29% of all residential fires happen in multi-family structures, like apartment buildings and townhouses. An average of 395 people die in these fires each year, and another 4,060 are injured. Considering the fact that multi-family buildings only make up 25% of American housing, that’s already an elevated fire risk for the people living there, but it only gets worse upon further examination of the numbers.
That other 75% of American housing includes not only traditional houses and duplexes but also mobile homes. Mobile homes, known in the industry as “manufactured homes,” currently house some 22 million U.S residents. That’s a lot of people, but it’s less than 10% of the total U.S population. And yet, data collected by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) across the years 2007-2011 indicates that mobile home fires cost an average of 206 lives per year. That’s more than half as many deaths as multi-family building fires, even though only two-fifths as many people live in mobile homes.
For apartment residents, the fact that mobile home fires are factored into the “safer” side of the multi-family vs. single-family housing equation should be concerning to say the least. It means that the risk of fire in an apartment is much higher than it is in a non-mobile house — more so than that 29% figure reveals.
Mobile Home Renters Bear the Brunt of Fire-Related Tragedies
Of course, these statistics are even worse news for mobile home residents, who face the highest odds of dying, being injured, or losing everything in a fire. This problem can be seen tragically clearly here in Georgia.
For example, on January 6th, 2020, a 73-year-old woman was found dead in the wreckage of her Bryan County mobile home, after an improperly vented dryer hose apparently started a fire in her laundry room. At the time, the incident was reported to be Georgia’s first fire-related death of the year. That isn’t true, but the death that preceded it also happened in a mobile home. Just two days earlier, another woman died of smoke inhalation inside her burning mobile home in Glynn County. Firefighters arrived to discover the woman’s boyfriend attempting to extinguish the blaze with a garden house, and what the fire chief described as “bad wiring throughout” the home.
Less that three weeks later, yet another Georgia mobile home, this one in Portal, became the site of the year’s third fatal housefire. A man and his dog were both found inside, as was a space heater that may have been the source of ignition.
Although mobile homes are often marketed as an affordable route to the American dream of homeownership, many people who live in mobile homes are actually renters, meaning that any faulty heating, wiring, and built-in appliances are the responsibility of a landlord. In many cases, mobile home deaths are caused by a landlord failing to maintain their homes in safe, livable condition.
Minimizing Your Risk of Fire-Related Death or Injury
Successfully preventing fires begins with understanding how fires usually start. The NFPA currently recognizes five top causes of residential fires:
- Cooking accidents
- Heating malfunctions
- Electrical malfunctions
- Smoking accidents
- Candle accidents
While several of these types of ignitions are caused or influenced by building maintenance issues, there are some things renters can do to reduce their individual risk. For example, anything made of cloth or paper should be kept away from heat sources, and it’s a good idea to avoid cooking, smoking, or lighting candles in any situation where you might fall asleep.
If you have concerns about the condition of your cooking appliances, heater, or wiring, it may be helpful to submit these concerns to your landlord or building manager in writing. That way, if there is a fire, you’ll have a paper trail that makes it hard for your landlord to argue that they didn’t know about the problem. Ideally, losing this deniability should motivate them to make repairs before a fire can start and their negligence can catch up with them.
Your Landlord Has a Responsibility to Protect You from Fire
Unfortunately, when you rent your apartment or mobile home, many of the factors that determine your fire safety are ultimately out of your control. At the end of the day, you’re trusting that your landlord is maintaining the property correctly, which often isn’t the case. For what it’s worth, however, safety-conscious maintenance isn’t just a moral imperative; it’s a legal one. If you’re injured because your building wasn’t fire-safe, you have avenues of recourse under the law.
Every property owner has a general responsibility to take all reasonable measures to keep tenants and guests on that property safe from known dangers. This most definitely includes fires, which are a prevalent enough danger to require consideration at every phase of planning, building, and maintaining a structure.
Failure to address a predictable safety hazard counts as negligence on a landlord’s part, whether the hazard violates a specific regulation or not, but in the case of fire, the applicable regulations are quite extensive. If you believe your building is a fire risk, the first places to look for confirmation are the International Fire Code and the International Building Code. Like every U.S state, Georgia honors these codes with a few local modifications.
Some of the most basic, commonsense fire safety measures mandated by the codes include:
The codes also heavily regulate electrical systems, the fire resistance level of a structure’s building materials, and many other details that are almost impossible for a layperson to verify. Just because a building didn’t look like a firetrap doesn’t mean corners haven’t been cut to lead to a tragedy. It’s always best to wait for a full investigation before assuming that a fire was pure resident carelessness or “nobody’s fault.”
Landlords May Share Responsibility for Fires that Were Intentionally Set
Although less common than accidental fires, arson is also a significant issue for apartment dwellers, because an attack on just one apartment can put every family in the complex at risk. Like any other foreseeable danger, landlords are required to protect their tenants from criminal threats and significant red flags, including signs of a serial arsonist on or near the property. Buildings must also be designed to impede the spread of fire from one unit to another.
Motivations for arson vary and include everything from insurance fraud to a pathological fascination with fire, so an arsonist might set a fire at random, at the home of a perceived enemy, or even in their own home. The latter is what appears to have happened in Bacon County, the day after Christmas of 2019. In that case, firefighters were able to contain the blaze to the apartment of the man now charged with starting it, but if the building had been less well-designed, many other families could have been harmed or displaced before help arrived.
What to Do After an Apartment or Mobile Home Fire
If a fire starts in your home, the first priority is, of course, getting yourself and your family outside. Once you reach a safe distance, you’ll need to call 911, if this has not already been done, so the fire can be contained, medical care given, and rescue attempted for anyone trapped inside. If you’re separated from your loved ones during evacuation, notify the firefighters, and let them do their job. Re-entering a burning building without proper equipment is less likely to help others than it is to put you in need of rescue yourself.
Even if you feel okay at first, you’ll need to be checked over for the effects of smoke inhalation and any injuries you might have overlooked due to adrenaline. If you do end up needing treatment for serious injuries, or worse, if someone you love didn’t make it out, your next call should be to a legal expert like those at The Stoddard Firm. We have experience proving the severity of our clients’ injuries, demonstrating how they were caused by the fire in question, and establishing what a landlord could and should have done to prevent them.
To talk to one of our highly qualified attorneys about a fatal or injury-causing fire in your rented apartment or mobile home, just call 678-RESULT, or reach out through our online chat function for a free consultation.