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Mobile home safety standards revisited

The firestorm that destroyed most of Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar has prompted investigations into whether tougher standards are needed to protect residents of manufactured housing in fire-prone areas.

Because many elderly people live in mobile home parks, state regulators and elected officials plan to explore the adequacy of evacuation plans and emergency procedures, which have been lacking at parks throughout the state.

State and county officials say they also will research policies on the spacing of mobile homes, the number of dwellings per acre, the removal of brush and flammable debris and the amount of flame- retardant building materials required in a mobile home.

Advocates for mobile home owners say that much needs to be done, from improving fire hydrants to better code enforcement by the state Department of Housing and Community Development, which regulates manufactured dwellings.

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“This fire has brought a bright spotlight on manufactured housing because the state has put no care into the inspection and enforcement of health and safety measures,” said Glenn Bell, president of Neighborhood Friends, a nonprofit advocate for mobile home owners.

Bell contends that the state has been slow to address complaints and inspect potential violations of health and safety codes. He said it took two years to get the state to investigate complaints of illegal wiring at the Blue Star mobile home park in Sylmar. The state eventually found problems throughout the 189-unit park.

Chris Anderson, a chief of field operations for the state housing department, disagreed with Bell. He said complicated cases can take time, that less serious violations don’t require immediate correction, and that the department has been willing to grant extensions to park owners who are trying to make corrections.

“Glenn and I have agreed to disagree on a lot of subjects,” Anderson said.

In the wake of this month’s devastation, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for a review of building standards and emergency procedures for mobile homes to bring them into line with many of the requirements for conventional dwellings. He noted that the 487 Oakridge residences lost in the fire went up like matches.

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s motion to consider how the county could better protect mobile homes, and ordered the county Fire Department to come back with recommendations for dwellings in fire-prone locations.

On another front, state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), intends to introduce legislation Dec. 1 that would require park managers to have safety training and parks to have evacuation plans, including procedures for assisting residents with disabilities and health problems.

Padilla’s office has been working with the Golden State Manufactured-Home Owners League, a nonprofit organization. Tim Sheahan, the group’s president, said there have been other fires in Sylmar in which locked gates and a lack of emergency planning delayed the evacuation of park residents.

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On Dec. 2, the state Senate committee on manufactured housing is scheduled to hold hearings on the Oakridge fire and the potential for more safety requirements. The committee chairman, Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), said further hearings are possible.

“We need to upgrade code requirements for mobile homes in wildfire areas,” said John Tennyson, a consultant to Correa’s committee. “But it will all come down to who is going to pay for them. Many people don’t have the money. How do we get to the older home, those that are already in place with a 70- or 80-year-old resident who’s been there for 20 years and can’t afford to rehab it?”

Today, there are about 4,800 mobile home parks and more than 400,000 spaces for mobile homes in the state. Many of them are in rural and semi- rural locations in Southern California where land and rent are affordable, but where the fire risks are higher than in urban settings.

The U.S. Fire Administration says there are roughly 17,700 fires a year in the United States that involve a mobile or manufactured home. They result in 345 deaths, 765 injuries and $155 million in property damage each year on average.

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Several fire department and insurance industry studies from around the nation indicate that the number of fires per 1,000 dwellings for mobile homes is about half that of conventional dwellings. The research also shows that the number of fires and amount of property damage for mobile homes have been declining since the federal government began regulating manufactured housing in 1976.

The federal codes require mobile homes to use fire- retardant building materials, have smoke detectors, two exterior doors and bedroom windows large enough for a person to escape through.

“The industry has come a long way in the past 30 years,” said Deputy State Fire Marshal Kevin Reinertson. “The construction is better and more noncombustible materials are used.”

Mobile home fires, however, are generally more severe than fires in conventional homes because living areas are smaller, construction materials are lighter and smoke alarms are often missing or not functional.

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A 2005 study by the National Fire Protection Assn. noted that in almost half of the mobile home fires reported from 1999 to 2002, smoke alarms either had been removed or were not working.

Federal officials say the fire-related death rate is 32% to 50% higher for mobile homes than conventional dwellings. Officials say many of the fires are caused by electrical or heater malfunctions and accidents involving cooking or smoking.

State officials say they are concerned about the increasing devastation of Southern California’s wildfires since 2003. As a result, they have developed new fire safety standards for mobile homes that call for more fire-resistant building materials, tempered glass for windows and ember-stopping mesh over vents and around crawl spaces. The standards went into effect in September for homes newly moved to private lots -- a small portion of the total mobile home sites.

Anderson, of the state housing department, said the state intends to apply them to dwellings when they are relocated within mobile home parks, but more public hearings are required before the standards can be finalized.

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“There are cost issues,” he said. “Manufacturers tell us it’s much cheaper to do these things at the factory -- about $1,000 to $1,500 to comply. To do them after the fact is $10,000 to $15,000, which is difficult for some people to afford.”

Anderson, who toured the Oakridge park, described the fire as “a horrible, horrible disaster.” He did not know whether the latest standards would have stopped the fire from destroying the 487 homes.

“These measures don’t necessarily prevent,” he said, “but they certainly can reduce the possibility of disaster.”

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dan.weikel@latimes.com


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