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Pack rat conditions found after deadly Winnetka garage fire

FiresLos Angeles Fire Department

Officials say a 61-year-old man who perished in a garage fire early Monday in Winnetka may have been living inside in pack rat conditions.

The man, who was not immediately identified, was homeless and a longtime friend of the homeowners, who allowed him to stay in the garage,  said Los Angeles Fire Battalion Chief Stephen Ruda.

“A good intention turned into a tragedy,” he said.

It was unclear if the man was using the garage as a full-time residence.

Firefighters responded about 4 a.m. to a report of a fire at a single-story home in the 7900 block of Sunnybrae Avenue, officials said. When they arrived at the home, they found a detached car garage engulfed in flames and heavy smoke. Firefighters had to cut open the garage door to gain access. They also made holes in the roof to let some of the heat and smoke out.

More than 30 firefighters responded to the scene and the fire was knocked out within 17 minutes.

When it was over, firefighters discovered what they described as pack rat conditions inside the garage, including a bed and chair, Ruda said. A four-wheel shopping cart was at the side of the building.

“The treasures he collected were the combustibles that took his life,” Ruda said.

The man’s body was discovered near the garage door, where investigators believed he died of smoke inhalation before he could open it.

There were no other exits, no smoke detectors or a sprinkler system inside, officials said, adding that car garages typically don't have smoke alarms because they’re not supposed to be used as housing.

The cause of the fire is under investigation. No other injuries were reported.

Ruda said the man is the sixth person to die this year in a fire where smoke detectors were absent.  

Last Monday, a family of four died in Sylmar when a fire ripped through the converted barn where they had been living. Fire officials said there were no smoke detectors inside the building.

An attorney for Leonarda Aguilar, the owner of the property, told the L.A. Times that smoke detectors “were provided.”

The attorney would not say whether the smoke detectors were installed by the property owner or a manager.

Fire officials said another fire fatality occurred before the Sylmar blaze, but details of the incident were not immediately available.   

Monday’s fatal fire may lead to the creation of a task force whose members would address safety code violations related to buildings that have been permitted or illegally converted into homes, Ruda said.

He said the proposal is still in its infant stage, but it would most likely include a collaboration among the Los Angeles Fire Department and its Fire Prevention Bureau, the Building and Safety Department and the city attorney’s office.

Ruda said the public can also help prevent such tragedies by reporting violations. 

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