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Mobile home park residents testify in Sylmar on fire safety

A California Senate panel hears discussion of safety issues raised by the Sylmar and Marek wildfires and a bill by state Sen. Alex Padilla that would require evacuation plans and fire safety training.

February 09, 2009|Dan Weikel

As a wildfire headed toward Mountain View Estates mobile home park near Chatsworth several years ago, the emergency response of the park's manager and assistant manager was simple, Gary Gibson recalls: They left, leaving him and hundreds of other residents to fend for themselves.

"They abandoned the park knowing the fire was bearing down on us," said Gibson, 62, who was later evacuated by sheriff's deputies. "It was a terrible thing to do, leaving the elderly and infirm behind to face that risk."

Gibson provided the account last week to the Senate Select Committee on Manufactured Housing and Communities, chaired by state Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana). The panel, which also includes state Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), held a public hearing Friday in Sylmar to discuss safety issues raised by last year's wildfires and a bill by Padilla that would require new fire safety measures for the 4,707 mobile home parks in California.

The measure would require emergency evacuation plans and fire safety training for staff and managers, including procedures for the evacuation of senior citizens and people with disabilities or health problems.

The bill was prompted by the firestorms that destroyed or damaged at least five mobile home parks in Southern California in the last two years, including Oakridge in Sylmar, where about 500 homes burned to the ground in November.

Padilla said he was confident that his measure would pass, although the Legislature and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have killed at least seven bills since 2001 to improve code enforcement and safety in mobile home parks.

"We've got support from public safety officials and residents," he said. "The governor was here after the fires and saw things for himself. I hope that will make a difference."

After November's fires, Schwarzenegger called for a review of building standards and emergency procedures for mobile homes, trying to bring them into line with requirements for conventional homes. He noted that the Oakridge units went up like matches.

At Friday's hearing, the committee heard dramatic testimony from mobile home owners who complained about a lack of emergency preparedness and escape routes, inadequate removal of flammable vegetation, and locks that had to be cut off gates to help residents flee oncoming flames.

Only one representative from the mobile home park industry testified: Bert Caster, the owner of a park in northern San Diego County. He told the committee that he supports Padilla's bill but would like it to apply to all housing, including condos and apartments.

Wanda Whelan testified that the lack of an evacuation plan at Sky Terrace Mobile Lodge in the hills above Sylmar kept her from saving valuables from the Marek fire last October. She said authorities would not let her onto the grounds, though the fire did not reach the park until the next day.

"We didn't know what to do," she said. "I spent the night on that hill waiting to retrieve something from my life. Why weren't we told to grab what we could? We had 24 hours."

Whelan, who watched her home burn down on the evening news, also said park owners had not trimmed or removed dense brush and overhanging trees, presenting a fire hazard. Her neighbor, Linda Zuchagma, testified that she and Whelan tried to clear brush on their own, but there was only so much they could do.

At the 189-unit Blue Star mobile home park below, resident Glenn Bell said, he waited in his car to get out of the park as flaming debris from the Marek fire rained down. Though the manager had the key, Bell said, the gate to the emergency exit stayed locked for almost two hours before Bell solved the problem with bolt cutters.

Bell, who is president of Neighborhood Friends, a nonprofit advocate for mobile home owners, said that under today's laws, the owner of an apartment building who kept emergency exits locked could face criminal prosecution, but the owner of a mobile home park could not.

Though residents support Padilla's bill, some homeowners who testified were frustrated by the lack of progress in the Legislature to improve health and safety conditions in mobile home parks. They said state laws, which are generally weaker than municipal building and safety codes for conventional buildings, treat residents of mobile homes like second-class citizens.

"This is old business being revisited year after year after year," said Samii Taylor, also of Neighborhood Friends. "Park owners and manufacturers have skewed the law in their favor. We need to protect the people at risk."

Eleanor Brooks, a resident of Santiago Estates mobile home park, which has 294 homes, told the committee that better coordination was needed between the state and local agencies that oversee health and safety conditions in the parks.

"They are playing pingpong, and we are the pingpong balls. We are bruised, busted and befuddled from being bounced from one agency to the next," she said. "The agencies need to get together and determine who is responsible for what."

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dan.weikel@latimes.com

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