Duluth tenant who died in second fire could have been evicted after firstHRA staff members try to work with residents and don’t have hard and fast rules requiring eviction for a single incident.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
When firefighters responded to a fatal fire at the Tri Towers apartment complex Saturday night, it was the second time in less than two years they had been called to the same apartment unit because of an unattended cigarette.
They first responded to a fire at the apartment on April 20, 2009, when a cigarette ignited the contents of a wastebasket. And on Saturday, firefighters were back on the scene, this time to rescue the man, who was badly burned and later died.
Police had yet to release the name of the victim Monday, pending notification of his family members.
The Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority owns the apartment building, located at 222 N. Second Ave. E., and could have used the prior fire as grounds to evict the man.
“Every situation is different. We have to evaluate each case individually,” said Rick Ball, executive director of the Duluth HRA.
He said staff members try to work with any resident involved in starting a fire, and they don’t have hard and fast rules requiring eviction for a single incident. They would work to remove someone who was believed to be an imminent danger, he said.
“We believe the situation was handled appropriately,” Ball said, based on what he knows of events and the tenant’s behavior leading up to Saturday’s fire. “Individual behavior can be unpredictable.”
He said staff will review the circumstances of the incident to see if they can glean any lessons from it.
Firefighters credited the building’s sprinkler system for containing the fire to a single apartment.
“Careless smoking is consistently the No. 1 cause of fire deaths in Minnesota,” said Kristine Chapin, a public information officer for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
Careless smoking was blamed for just 4 percent of all structure fires in the state in 2009, but it accounted for 29 percent of all fire fatalities and 42 percent of residential fire deaths, according to data collected by the Minnesota State Fire Marshal.
Chapin noted that most of the smoking fire fatalities in the state involve people who are inebriated.
In 2009, careless smoking resulted in fires that claimed the lives of 10 people in Minnesota. Although official figures are not yet available for 2010, Chapin said the state knows of six such fatalities this past year.
Minnesota requires all cigarettes sold in the state to meet “reduced ignition propensity” standards. These cigarettes are designed to extinguish themselves if left unattended, but they still can and do cause fires, according to Duluth Assistant Fire Chief Jim Ray.
“They’re a definite improvement, but they’re not a cure-all,” he said. “It has to burn down to the stop point first.”
Fire almost entirely consumed a sofa that firefighters removed from the victim’s apartment. Chapin said it’s hard to generalize but noted that synthetic materials in upholstery and carpet products can produce toxic fumes when burned. Smoke may have played a role in overwhelming and immobilizing the victim of the Tri Towers fire.
Ball said that to his knowledge, the Duluth HRA has had only one other fire fatality caused by smoking in one of its apartment buildings. On Jan. 5, 2003, Dorothy Hams, 43, died as a result of a fire she is believed to have started while smoking a cigarette in her wheelchair at Midtowne Manor II.
Midtowne Manor has since gone smoke-free, and Ball said Tri Towers is scheduled to follow suit May 1.
“In a tragic sort of way, this fire really underscores one of the advantages of not allowing smoking any more,” Ball said.