The Bellingham Fire Department (BFD) report of investigation (see attachment below) concludes that the fire at 1017 Jersey St. started in a daylight basement on the lower level, at an undetermined point and that the cause remains unknown. Any further investigations are carried out by insurance carriers of the parties involved and are usually not divulged given the private nature of the insurance contract and possible future litigation.
Nevertheless, the BFD report opined that the cause may have been related to:
1. A man in a dark trench coat seen running from the scene as witnesses arrived
2. An electrical problem
3. Marijuana being smoked in the living room
Given the totality of the report and the principal of Occam’s Razor,* I would go with number 2, the old knob and tube wiring system with suspiciously flickering lights and taped up/over electrical outlets, as the cause. Moreover, the fellow in the dark trench coat may have more to do with the spate of recent incidents involving a man exposing himself or acting as a Peeping Tom. The house next door at 1019 Jersey St. was the home of 4 young female students, a possible target for Mr. Peepers. The marijuana explanation may be plausible but sounds a bit judgemental unless there is a greater possibility of starting a fire from a smoldering marijuana joint than a normal cigarette.
Unfortunately, we are left without definitive answers. Knob and tube wiring is not considered inherently unsafe by city code inspectors, but leaving in place a wiring system that was likely placed in the house about 100 years ago does not sound like a good plan for a landlord from any standpoint. The electrical appliances and entertainment gear today are much more demanding electrically. Most renters now, unless they are electrical engineers, do not know anything about wiring that was principally in use during the lifetime of their great-grandparents.
A contributing factor to the spread of the fire from 1017 to 1019 was the proximity of the two houses - . I think our planners have to take such aspects of dwelling site placement (setbacks) into more serious consideration as they recommend more and more density with structures built on smaller and smaller lots, nearer and nearer to one another. The Planning Commission has been talking about recommending allowing detached accessory dwelling units on 4,000 sq. ft. lots.
Now it remains to be seen what the owner does with these two homes. Whether or not it is economically feasible to repair them, he may decide to raze both and construct another one or two megaplexes as he has done three times already in the York Neighborhood with utter impunity. That would place possibly two 7-bedroom houses on Jersey St. where the original construction had two 2-bedroom homes before. Formal complaints on the current megaplexes have gone nowhere as the the city says it is “monitoring” the situation. You can read more about the city’s failed megaplex enforcement at this link.
These fires are in and of themselves horrific enough, but for the owner, who kept such unsafe rentals on the market for decades, to profit even further from the destruction of these dwellings is truly an obscenity. And one might ask where is the Whatcom County Association of Realtors while all this is happening? They have a Code of Ethics and, in fact, provided a seminar on that topic on October 26th at the Bellingham Golf and Country Club. One wonders if this fire and the actions of this real estate owner/broker and his management company were topics. From their own code of Standard of Practice: “REALTORS® shall, consistent with the terms and conditions of their real estate licensure and their property management agreement, of clients with due regard for the rights, and others lawfully on the premises. (Adopted 1/95, Amended 1/00)”
* Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate [Plurality must never be posited without necessity]. In other words, the simplest explanation suffices.