Before they left the station Thursday, the Van Nuys firefighters knew what they would find on a routine inspection: apartment houses with open fire doors, a lack of smoke detectors and other hazards of the sort that helped fuel Monday's deadly fire in the Westlake district of Los Angeles.
Despite a history relatively unscarred by deadly apartment fires, parts of the San Fernando Valley are thick with residential buildings prone to the same dangers, said fire officials involved in safety inspections.
"Right here you have the same thing that caused the trouble for the people in Westlake," said Los Angeles Fire Capt. Robert Rose, pointing to a propped-open fire door at an apartment house in Van Nuys on Thursday afternoon. "If these doors are kept open, there's nothing to keep a fire from spiraling up through the building."
Rose said the building at 14751 Erwin St. would be cited for several violations, including open doors and an expired fire extinguisher tag. But whether the landlord and tenants follow the safety rules after the firefighters are gone is less certain.
"The laws and regulations that are in place would protect the people if they adhered to them," Rose said. "Unfortunately, sometimes we leave and we know the doors are going to be propped right back open." The myth that newer apartments with courtyards are relatively safe from fire catastrophes was disproven by a blaze on Burlington Avenue, which killed eight people in the three-story structure built in 1985.
Although most residences in the San Fernando Valley were not built with interior corridors like those in the Westlake building, and the majority are far less crowded than some in the mid-city area, fire hazards may grow as the Valley population becomes denser, officials said.
"There are times that we ourselves wonder why there aren't more fires out here," said Capt. Robert Cairns, also of the Van Nuys station. "The potential for fires is high citywide. But although the Valley is getting more and more compact, we're still probably safer up here overall."
Residential buildings with more than 15 units are supposed to be inspected at least once a year--searches, firefighters say, that routinely turn up code violations.
In parts of Arleta, North Hills and Panorama City last month, for instance, firefighters cited half of the 32 buildings they inspected, said Firefighter Salvador Jauregui, who works the area. The violations ranged from barely overdue extinguisher registrations to numerous instances of blocked and open doors.
"It's really just a human instinct--you get tired of opening and closing that door every time you go through, and so you prop it open," Jauregui said. "But you don't realize that that door could save your life."
Inspectors at Jauregui's Station 81 in Arleta also report routinely finding faulty fire alarms, especially in some of the more run-down buildings in crime-infested neighborhoods such as Blythe Street.
When fire crews find alarms that don't work, they order building owners and managers to conduct 24-hour fire watches. But as the Westlake fire proved, compliance is not guaranteed.
Chronic hazards tend to crop up in low-rent buildings, where the indifference of some owners toward public safety can lead to a cycle of neglect by the tenants, said Deputy City Attorney Don Cocek, who has successfully prosecuted several Valley slumlords for failing to maintain their buildings to code.
"What you often have is a conflict between the landlord and the tenant, where the landlord says, 'I'm not going to care about the place because the tenants don't,' " Cocek said. "But usually, the tenants don't care about the building because the landlord doesn't care about either the building or the people who live there."
The problem is exacerbated in pockets of the mid- and northeast Valley, Van Nuys and North Hollywood, where there is sometimes a lack of communication between immigrant renters, landlords and fire officials, which can lead to an unwitting disregard for fire codes, Cocek said.
Although the threat of jail is usually enough to force even the most uncooperative landlords to correct fire hazards, it can often take months to get to that stage, Cocek said. "It can take so long to get these people to comply, but all it takes is a few seconds to set off a fire or some other disaster," he said.