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Fire losses may prompt tougher building codes for mobile homes
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called for a review of building standards and emergency procedures Sunday after the Oakridge Mobile Home Park was devastated by the Sayre fire and a backup power system failed at a Sylmar hospital.
"We should start thinking about building all of the mobile homes with the same fire retardant that's used . . . in those fire-prone areas where we build homes. I think that would have saved, probably, a lot of those mobile homes," Schwarzenegger said at a news conference at the firefighters' Hansen Dam command post.
"The fire went through . . . the mobile park so quickly that there was no way of stopping anything, because they were like matches," he said. "So we learn from that."
About a month ago, another mobile home park was destroyed when the Marek fire broke out in the Angeles National Forest and prompted evacuations in the areas of Lopez and Kagel canyons. That fire blazed through the Sky Terrace Mobile Lodge in Lake View Terrace, which was mostly reduced to piles of ash amid pools of molten metal. At least 30 of 55 mobile homes were lost.
At the Oakridge Mobile Home Park in Sylmar, more than 500 of about 600 homes were destroyed Saturday.
"We lost pretty much everything," said Miguel Gomez, 48, who had lived in space #20 of the Oakridge park and lost his home, cars and most of his possessions in the fire.
"Everything's in the ground," he said.
Chris Anderson, chief of field operations for the division of codes and standards with the California Department of Housing and Community Development, said the issue is already being addressed and that mobile home parks in certain fire-prone areas could have stricter codes as early as late January.
"These are issues that are not insurmountable," Anderson said.
He said that the state fire marshal had already begun addressing fire-resistant construction in fire-prone zones known as "wildland urban interface" areas and that the department had adopted many of those building codes about three months ago. The new requirements include changes to roofing, windows and siding.
The department is working on a provision that would apply to new homes installed in mobile home parks and that could be adopted by late January or early February, Anderson said. But he said the codes are not retroactive and will apply only to new construction.
Anderson said there are about 400,000 spaces in about 4,200 mobile home parks across the state and that in many cases there are seven or eight units per acre.
"That's fairly tight, fairly compact," Anderson said. "When you have those fires coming down the canyon, as that wall of flame comes in, it's advanced by these embers. So they're already picking up spot fires.
"Now when the wall of flames comes, there's very little that can be done to stop it."
But established mobile home parks could be made safer if the stricter codes are applied to new construction within them, Anderson said.
Attic vents are a problem with many mobile homes, he said, because they can provide an entryway for flying embers during fires.
"Santa Anas would be blowing these embers, that were smaller than what you might expect, and they would go through those vents," Anderson said.
"Then you would have a fire in the attic."
Anderson said that most new homes in fire-prone areas do not have such vents and that new homes installed in mobile home parks could soon follow that trend. He noted, though, that most mobile home parks were not in fire-prone areas.
Schwarzenegger said there were other lessons to be learned from the weekend firestorms.
"We also learned to make sure we pay attention to our generators in hospitals, because you know the power went out in a local hospital and then the generator did not kick in," he said, a reference to a situation Saturday at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar.
State law requires hospitals to resume lighting and electricity within 10 seconds after a normal power failure and maintain power for at least 24 hours. Hospitals are required to test the backup generators every week for at least half an hour and are required to keep a written record of inspections and repairs.
Michael Wilson, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said Olive View was still attempting to figure out why a critical fuel pump failed during the firestorm early Saturday morning, plunging the hospital into darkness for more than two hours.
Wilson said the hospital had tested the pump last Wednesday, and that some hospital officials have said they thought the pump was overcome by Saturday's heat and smoke.
Bloomekatz and Lin are Times staff writers.