Bobby Gonzales woke up abruptly at four in the morning one day last April.
Two ladder trucks were outside his window. Flames were rushing through the building.
Gonzales, 59, had fallen asleep with his headphones on and didn’t hear a neighbor’s shouts. He woke up only when his music stopped because the Fire Department had turned off the electricity.
Gonzales said he and his 89-year-old father were lucky to have gotten out with their lives. When Gonzales went back in his bedroom to grab his shoes after getting his father out of bed, the ceiling collapsed onto the bed he had been sleeping in just moments before.
The fire, at 156 South Soto Street, was caused by a resident making potato chips in a cooker hooked up to a propane tank. The fire raced through the building, leaving a dozen people homeless. Neighbors helped a disabled resident from the fire. Luckily, no one was injured.
Sadly, this isn’t always the case when fires break out. In 2011, fire injured 13,900 Americans, according to the U.S Fire Administration, an arm of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That same year, fire claimed the lives of 2,450 people, nearly one third of them elderly.
In Los Angeles in 2011, the Los Angeles Fire Department responded to 8,099 structure fires. Ninety-seven people were injured, and 18 residents and one firefighter lost their lives.
Most fires at night
More than half of fatal home fires happen when people are asleep, between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m., much like the fire that cost Gonzales his apartment of 23 years.
According to FEMA, having a working fire alarm in a home can halve the chance of dying from a fire (Gonzalez said his apartment had a smoke detector, but he doesn’t know if it was working. His headphones may have prevented him from hearing it.)
Fire Captain Frank Cornejo of Los Angeles Fire Department Station #2 says working smoke detectors are “absolutely paramount. They are going to alert [people] and save their lives.”
Fire Safety Tips
”¢ Make sure your home has a smoke alarm in every bedroom and hallway leading to one.
”¢ Test your smoke alarms monthly.
”¢ Replace batteries once a year.
”¢ Replace smoke alarms after 10 years
”¢ Do not overload extension cords or wall outlets.
”¢ Do not place extension cords in high traffic areas.
”¢ If outlet sparks or emits a strange smell, unplug immediately.
”¢ Keep objects at least three feet away from heaters.
”¢ Keep fires in fireplace, use a fire screen, and clean chimney regularly.
”¢ Plan an escape route from each room, and practice getting out.
”¢ Call 911 for help immediately.
”¢ Do not open doors that are hot.
”¢ Stay low when escaping a burning building.
Residential fire rates tend to be higher in cities with large numbers of older buildings. Because new structures are built to stricter building codes, they are likely to have safer heating and electrical systems and are better able to handle modern-day appliances and electrical loads.
Deaths by fire are more common in low-income communities, according to a 2012 article in the Journal of Public Health. That’s because the housing stock is often older, electrical circuits are more likely to be overloaded, cooking facilities may be makeshift and batteries in smoke detectors may not be replaced regularly.
Earlier this year, an elderly Boyle Heights couple died after being caught in a fire inside their home at 3136 East Malabar Street. According to an investigation by the Los Angeles Fire Department, the 70-year-old woman and her 90-year-old husband did not have any working smoke alarms.
Evidence of overloaded circuits, improperly used extension cords and portable space heaters were found throughout the one-story house, though the precise cause of the fire remains unknown. The home was reportedly more than 100 years old.
Cornejo says that in Boyle Heights, the most common causes of fires are faulty wiring or plugging too many devices into electrical outlets. Nationally, FEMA says cooking was the leading cause of fires from 2007-2011, with heating the second leading cause, followed by electrical problems.
Problems in apartments
People living in apartment buildings are vulnerable to their neighbor’s unsafe practices. A 2013 FEMA report found that between 2009-2011, the fire extended beyond the room of origin in 91 percent of multiple-fatality fires in apartment buildings.
Keeping a fire from spreading in an apartment building is a challenge. “In an apartment complex, a lot of people like to wedge open the (fire) door in a hallway,” says Cornejo. “It’s very important for them to know they need to close them. Those doors are there for a reason, and that’s to keep smoke to the area of the fire.”
Cornejo says people need to plan for a fire before it happens. In particularly, they should maintain their smoke detectors and make an evacuation plan.
Although Gonzales’ apartment building still stands, the charred walls and burnt roof are covered by blue tarp, and the structure is uninhabitable.
Gonzales says he’s glad he was home to help his father. “He probably would have been burned,” says Gonzales. “He’s a sound sleeper. He didn’t hear anything.”