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Tough economy makes house fires even more destructive

TAMPA — Kenneth Jones sighs a lot, says "I just don't know" a lot too.

His voice trails off when he talks about the house, now in past tense. Now charred and soaked and gone, nothing salvageable.

"No, nothing," Jones said. And no idea where he'll go next. "I just don't know," he said.

In the wake of financial disaster, families often huddle together, waiting out the economic storms under one roof. But having so many people living in the same place can cause more harm during another kind of disaster: fire.

The Jones family found out the hard way last Sunday night. Too many things plugged into a bedroom outlet sparked a blaze that burned the East Tampa home to the ground. Of the seven people who lived at 6229 Eugene Ave., one had a steady job.

Five adults and two children in the 1,350-square-foot house. Jones said the home had recently been foreclosed.

"We were sticking together as a family," he said.

The little-noted consequences of multiple family members living under one roof are the increased fire risk and more complicated rescue and recovery.

First, the causes.

Lt. Joel Granata of St. Petersburg Fire Rescue cited extra mattresses near extra lamps, too many devices plugged in an overloaded electrical circuit, candles lit when the power bill can't be paid, or extension cords bringing borrowed electricity from a neighbor.

Granata said such dangerous behavior seems more common lately. "The economic times are challenging everybody."

In Pasco, Mike Ciccarello, the assistant fire chief, said he's seen the same thing.

"Times are tough for some people," Ciccarello said. But a large household doesn't always mean fire risk is increased.

"It's about good housekeeping," Ciccarello said. "It comes down to that. Whether you're a four-member family or three-member or seven, if you don't do the right thing, you cause hazards."

That means making sure appliances are in good shape, keeping candles away from anything flammable, using surge protectors and, maybe most important, practicing an escape route. In temporary living situations, especially when there's plenty of other stuff to worry about, fire drills often fall by the wayside.

"You can see the obvious problem," said Capt. Ray Yeakley, a spokesman for the Hillsborough County Fire Rescue. "It's like, you know how you go and visit family for holidays and stuff? You would never know where you should go or where the doors are exactly or what you should do. It's especially important for little kids."

Lt. Tamera Kemp of Tampa Fire Rescue agreed.

"People need to practice their escape," Kemp said. "If people are just staying temporarily, they're not going to do that."

But any escape plan, practiced or not, can be thwarted if extra furniture and beds block doors and windows, said Joelle Castelli, a city of Clearwater spokeswoman.

But it's not up to city representatives or the fire department to inspect homes for fire safety. Fire departments inspect only commercial buildings or apartment complexes with three or more units.

"We're kind of in a tough spot," Castelli said.

"Would you want the fire department knocking on your door to inspect?" Granata asked.

Jake Slater, Tampa's director of code enforcement, said his agency inspects residences only if there's a complaint.

But even then, there's no limit to how many family members can live together, Slater said. The maximum for people who are not related is four.

"It's a common occurrence now," Slater said of large households. "It concerns me about the safety issues sometimes, it does."

But unless someone complains, there's nothing code enforcement can do. "Our hands are kind of tied," Slater said.

Still, the real trouble comes after the fire — when a whole family already in dire straits has lost a lifetime's worth of photographs, documents, toys, shoes and clothing. And when family members lose shelter all at once, where do they go?

Kenneth Jones doesn't know.

"It's pretty messed up," he said.

The American Red Cross will provide shelter for a few nights. It's usually in a hotel room or two, depending on family size. The Joneses had three rooms for four nights.

Large households, or multiple-family households in some cases, make the Red Cross' job more complicated, said Chad Magnuson, the organization's emergency services director.

"The impact of a fire is greater than it has ever been," Magnuson said.

Typically, the Red Cross spends about $250,000 a year helping families recover from disasters, Magnuson said. This year, he expects that to be closer to $300,000.

The money comes from donations, which are waning for nearly every nonprofit organization.

Not only does it cost more, but sometimes the Red Cross must navigate tricky lease situations. Families that were living together against the rules of an unknowing landlord often have to be split up. And even if the Red Cross finds separate affordable new places, both families may not have steady incomes.

"We have to be very creative," Magnuson said. "What we never do is say, 'There's nothing we can do. You're out on the street.' We keep working with them until we can find some sort of alternate accommodations."

For the Joneses, that meant two extra nights when the first four-night stay ran out.

Kenneth Jones said he's been calling shelters, churches and anyone else he can think of "all day, every day."

"I've called in circles, as a matter of fact."

Some shelters refer him to other shelters, which refer him back again or somewhere else. Some take only women or children. Many are full.

"I've been trying to get something going," Jones said. "I wont be down forever. I'll try to pay back any help that's given."

"We'll figure something out. That's for sure."

Kim Wilmath can be reached at kwilmath@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.

Tough economy makes house fires even more destructive 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 11:53am]
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