Story and photos by Katie Meyer
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
Can termite damage really cause a fire in your wooden home? A baseboard heater that is turned “off” stays off, doesn’t it? Just how can something “spontaneously combust” (which started the fire at right, in Arbor Heights in August)?
Many questions related to fires – and fire safety – were answered Tuesday night at the West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting held at the Southwest Precinct. A late but informative addition to the agenda: The Seattle Fire Department provided guest speakers – education specialist Dana Catts and investigator Ronald M. Ready from the Arson and Fire Investigation Unit.
First, Southwest Precinct Operations Lt. Pierre Davis gave an update on current crime rates, stressing that recent success in reducing certain crimes was bolstered by “the efforts that have happened with our citizens here and their fantastic job they’re doing in reporting crime to 911, saying the right things to the 911 operators, giving the right information.”
CRIME TRENDS: Lt. Davis continued: “A lot of our crimes are the burglaries and auto thefts and car prowls, and we’re making some fantastic strides. A couple months ago, they were killing us, but we put crime patterns together, linking criminals to specific crimes, and in the past months we’ve put a lot of them behind bars. Some do get out awaiting trial, but we’re hanging a lot of crimes on them, and we’re working with the Seattle attorney’s office on the exceptional sentences.”
Compared to this time last year, per Lt. Davis, residential burglaries in West Seattle are down 9%; non-residential burglaries are down 6%, and there’s been 23% fewer car prowls. He noted that auto thefts up 11% from this time last year, but that the SPD’s auto detectives are working on linking burglaries with the auto thefts, as burglars like stealing cars to use: “They like putting stolen loot in stolen cars!”
One meeting attendee said that there had been three burglaries since September on 12th SW, and the SPD had “caught two guys and they think they’re probably responsible for all three of the burglaries, and that’s brought a lot of relief to the neighborhood.”
Lt. Davis reminded that anyone witnessing crimes let the police know so that they “can track and see crime patterns and get descriptions. The more information we get, the more responsive we can get.” The number of Seattle Police officers combined “with our citizenry, that’s ten-fold.” More people out in their neighborhoods, involved on their streets, noticing suspicious activity and notifying the SPD helps them document incidents and helps prevent (and catch) strangers casing houses, illegal drugs activity and more.
Along with Community Police Team officers Kevin McDaniel and Ken Mazzuca, Lt. Davis addressed some questions about mail theft (“we haven’t had a whole heck of a lot of reports of that; if you witness crimes, let the police know.”) and about hate crimes in West Seattle: “The SPD takes that very seriously, and we go after individuals who do that wholeheartedly. Other than the one a while back, there haven’t been hate crimes going on around West Seattle.”
FIRE PREVENTION AND SAFETY EDUCATION: Fire Investigator Ron Ready explained how pyrolysis – “the decomposition of solid material through the application of heat” occurred in the Arbor Heights house fire. The investigation determined that the fire was accidental, with no signs of forced entry or of arson. The first 911 call was from someone who’d seen the garage door spring open, and a fire burning in the portable fireplace unit, which per the tenants hadn’t been used in two years. Inv. Ready explained that organic material such as the cellulose in wood, and even residue from burned treated wood, degrades over time, causing both heat and a lower ignition temperature. As the ambient temp was around 90 degrees that day, the gradual buildup of heat in the garage on that organic material, which was covered with a blanket, began to burn.
Questioned about the water pressure and supply issues at the Arbor Heights house fire scene, Inv. Ready discussed how that street has 4-inch elevated water main, and that the SFD hooks a feeder hose to the fire truck, which then powers fire hoses spraying 300 gallons a minute. Hydrants in the area either didn’t have enough water or pressure to achieve that, which is why firefighters spread hoses along so many blocks to find a hydrant that would allow them to adequately fight the fire. Noting that Seattle Public Utilities has acknowledged that the water mains in that area are too small, Inv. Ready said that department is the one to address “anything beyond what the SFD can say,” currently the Water Department is studying the cost to upgrade that area.
To find out how recently fire hydrants were inspected and what size water main is in your block, that’s public information; a map showing that is available from Seattle Public Utilities.
Having investigated more than 2,000 fires, Inv. Ready noted that even termites can cause a house fire through pyrolysis: They turn wood into sawdust, using enzymes as they go, which causes heat – add a little oxygen, the sawdust can smoulder and start burning. Sunlight and other heat sources applied to rags soaked in linseed oil or deck stain or turpentine causes the material to degrade and ignite; he advised putting materials like those into a metal garbage can with the lid closed.
Per SFD Education Specialist Dana Catts, the #1 cause of house fires is from kitchen fires, and the #2 cause is from baseboard heaters. A pillow against a baseboard heater caused the recent fire that killed a 36-year-old man in a basement fire in another part of Seattle last week. He had no smoke/fire alarm. “Most people are unaware that a built in baseboard heater, even turned “off” will come on when it gets down to 50 degrees – several manufacturers designed them to do that to protect household plumbing from freezing, so be sure to keep materials away from the baseboard heaters even in a room that you “never use.”
She discussed the different fire safety educational efforts that SFD provides, from speaking to kids at schools and special events, making sure local teachers have materials to send home with children to their families about house and apartment fire escape plans, to smoke alarm delivery and installation to qualified Seattle residents, and helping educate Seattle’s communities.
One initiative spurred by the tragedy of the Fremont fire in 2010 (covered here by our partners at The Seattle Times) is the SFD reaching out to provide education in ethnic/immigrant communities where people may have different customs, and might not speak English or might be unaware of various safety practices and the codes/laws against flame barbecuing indoors, running generators indoors, etc. Volunteers from those communities receive education and training; they then go back to their neighborhoods and teach what they’ve learned – and “that has been working really well.”
FIRE STOPPERS PROGRAM: The education of juveniles about fire safety – including the consequences of their actions if they start fires – is a very effective tool. SFD takes arson seriously – they can charge a juvenile with arson from the age of 12 on up. Some kids have no experience with fire at all, while others have a little too much interest in it, which led to the “Fire Stoppers Program”: a free, confidential education program for children who show curiosity about fire, or who have started a fire.
“Kids get referred to the program, from 3- to 17-year-olds. Some times it’s court mandated, sometimes the kids are referred by police, or a counselor, or even a parent. SFD does an assessment of the kid, with questions, and we work with mental health professionals-we also will refer juveniles to behavioral counselor if need be. So far, the results have been very positive – once kids get the education and understand the consequences.” Kids complete the program including homework, and recidivism rates are significantly lower for those who go through the program. “A lot of times, it’s kids who are unsupervised who get into trouble.”
Remember, SFD will supply and install free smoke alarms for qualified Seattle residents if
# You live in the City of Seattle
# You own and live in your home
# You are living on a low income, are a senior citizen or are disabled. (Seattle residents who are deaf or hard of hearing may qualify for a free strobe smoke alarm.)
The next Crime Prevention Council meeting will be at the SW Precinct on November 15th at 7 pm, and will host Lisa Mulligan, King County Transit Police Chief.