GREELEY — For many with low or fixed incomes, mobile homes provide an affordable housing option that’s hard to beat as housing costs continue to rise in Colorado.
But that affordability can come at a cost.
In 2004, sisters Brianna Quintero, 3, and Janet Quintero, 5, died when a candle started a fire in their mobile home at Holiday Village. Both parents suffered minor injuries when they tried to rescue the girls, and the flames pushed them back.
“The parents were out but told us the children were inside,” said Dale Lyman, then a deputy fire marshal and Greeley’s current fire chief. “Firefighters tried to reach them, but the fire was too strong.”
It’s believed the girls were the first children in Greeley to die in a fire since the first fire records in 1889.
Their deaths are tragic illustrations of the risks fire officials say come with living in a mobile home.
The most severe risks are in homes built before 1976, when the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development set safety and construction standards for mobile homes. The Quintero home was built in 1969 — well before those standards, requiring safer building materials and floor layout, were set.
In an analysis of mobile home fires from 2007-2011, the National Fire Protection Association found homes built after 1976 had a 57% lower rate of fire deaths than homes built before the standards.
About a third of Weld County’s mobile homes were built from 1960-1979, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That means many homes still don’t meet the 1976 standards. Some homes continue to have aluminum wiring for electricity, which presents a very large fire hazard, according to Deputy Fire Marshal Lt. Greg Cobb of the Greeley Fire Department.
As electricity is run through it, the aluminum expands and contracts much more than copper wire, loosening connections over time. Loose connections mean greater heat output from electrical resistance, which can eventually lead to a fire.
Cobb said they often see heat tape causing fires in mobile homes, as residents attempt to warm frozen pipes. With the frame of the home up off the ground, and the utilities ran underneath the home, there is a greater risk of exposure not only to the cold, he explained, but also to animals that may chew on wiring.
Even for mobile homes manufactured after 1976, unique fire risks still remain.
Smaller average room and overall sizes can speed up fire growth, according to a study by the National Fire Protection Association. With less time from the moment a fire is located at a specific source to the moment a fire fully involves every combustible object in a room, that can mean less time for residents to escape.
When in a contained room, a fire raises temperatures at the ceiling level to more than 1000 degrees, Cobb said. Once a fire burns through the ceiling and roof, it’s ventilated, and can spread even more rapidly.
Emergency access, in and outIt’s not just the size of the mobile home that creates unique conditions for first responders. The layout of mobile home parks plays a role, too.
Mobile home park owners try to maximize the space used for lots, which bring in revenue. That typically means homes are placed closer together than usual, another factor in the spread of fires, and roads are narrow. During Colorado winters, piles of plowed snow mean even less space for firefighters to respond.
Without designated parking, some residents or visitors park on the already-narrow roads or sidewalks, adding to the accessibility issues for firefighters.
“We have a continual issue where we’re having to go into mobile home parks and speak with management about the designated parking,” Cobb said. “Moving emergency equipment around a mobile home park can be very difficult.”
If there is limited fire hydrant access, that lack of emergency access can further impede firefighters’ ability to quickly extinguish a blaze.
Joe DiSalvo, a firefighter and shift inspector for the Evans Fire Protection District, said Evans firefighters found themselves in a similar situation a little more than 15 years ago. There was one single fire hydrant to an entire mobile home park, he said. To reach the fire, they had to lay out more than 1,000 feet of hose, slowing down their response and reducing the amount of water they had available.
Fortunately, they managed to keep the fire contained and there were no injuries, he said.
The floor plan of mobile homes can make escape from a fire difficult, according to Cobb. Though mobile homes are required to have at least two exterior doors, a fire can easily block the main path for someone in a bedroom, which is typically located farther from exits than other rooms.
Code requires that all bedrooms have escape windows, but it’s rare for residents to test them out, Cobb said.
A rusted or painted window could block a resident’s last chance for escape. People have a natural instinct to exit the same way they entered, even in an emergency, Cobb said, meaning they might not think to escape out the window until it’s too late.
Evolving improvementsThe 1976 HUD standards made such a difference on the rate of fire deaths that the National Fire Protection Association determined the death rate would drop well below the rate for other one- or two-family homes.
Those in the industry say the standards set a high bar.
“The HUD Code meets or exceeds the quality and safety standards for site-built homes,” Lesli Gooch, executive vice president of advocacy and communications for the Manufactured Housing Institute, said in a statement. “We encourage homeowners to review and follow safety tips from their local fire marshal’s office as they are generally applicable to both off-site and on-site built homes.”
In addition to the HUD standards, which underwent two revisions in the 90s, other improvements are making newer homes and parks more fire safe than ever before. DiSalvo said newer parks tend to have streets with curbs, gutters and sidewalks, and the proximity of the trailers to each other has grown relative to older parks.
Cobb and DiSalvo both said the departments get involved with the cities’ extensive planning processes, giving them an opportunity to guide developers to more fire-safe communities.
While it would be ideal to go in to pre-standard homes and enforce all the updated building codes and fire codes to the letter of the law, Cobb said it’s necessary to balance those concerns with the need for affordable housing. To prevent fires, he said, it takes a community.
“Fire safety and community safety, it becomes the responsibility of everybody,” he said. “Whether it be the city, fire department, building department ... park management (or) the occupants.”