CFW+Plus Couch, Porch and Deck Fires

The following is a reprint of a 2012 article in Campus Firewatch

Fires in off-campus houses starting on decks and porches continue to be a significant concern in communities across the nation. You can drive down the streets in many college communities and see upholstered furniture on front porches or on decks as well as gas grills. The problem with this type of furniture is a large fuel load that is outside of the building and a fire that starts in it often grows quickly into a large fire before it is detected. When it gets so large, it then gets into the house and has a tremendous head start before any of the occupants might be alerted. In fact, in a number of the fires that have happened, it is often a passerby that sees the fire, calls 911 or alerts the residents.

Several of these fires have become fatal ones, including:

  • September 2003, three students were killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota
  • April 2005, a student was killed in College Park, Maryland
  • May 2006, a student was killed in Ithaca, New York
  • July 2006, a student was killed in Stillwater, Oklahoma
  • March 2007, a student was killed in Brookline, Massachusetts
  • October 2007, a student was killed in Arkansas City, Kansas
  • October 2007, six students were killed in Ocean Isle Beach, North Carolina
  • November 2007, a student was killed in Madison, Wisconsin
  • March 2010, two students were killed in Gunnison, Colorado
  • April 2010, a student was killed in Ann Arbor, Michigan
  • December 2010, a student was killed in St. Paul, Minnesota

Another problem with having upholstered furniture outside of a building is a health one since they can get wet and start growing mold and become a home for insects. A number of communities have taken action to control the proliferation of furniture outside of buildings for either fire safety, health or blight reasons.

Columbia, Missouri, put an ordinance in place in 1991. “It wasn’t a fire issue at that point in time,” reported Steven Sapp, fire marshal with the Columbia Fire Department. “What was happening was that we were looking at a lot of off-campus housing and seeing that they weren’t being maintained as well as some of the adjacent properties that were owner occupied. It has been used to clear off the combustibles from front porches and decks.” This ordinance originally started out in response to aesthetic problems but it also provides a fire safety component as well.

Another community that has addressed this problem through an ordinance is Boulder, Colorado. Unlike Columbia, the Boulder ordinance only addresses specific problem areas around the University of Colorado. “We didn’t feel there was a need to have a citywide ordinance,” said David Lowrey, fire marshal for Boulder Fire Rescue. “You get into some of the other neighborhoods where there isn’t a large collegiate population and there isn’t a problem.”

When this ordinance was first proposed over 14 years ago, the main driving force behind it was fire safety. During celebrations, the students were taking the couches from the porches and setting them on fire in the streets, but this ordinance has had a dramatic impact on reducing these type of incidents, but not necessarily eliminating them. Lowrey reports that they had 35 couch fires last year, but they are in streets and alleys. When looking at the ordinance and trying to measure if it is effective or not, Lowrey said that since they have not had a structure fire that started in a couch, perhaps that is a measure of its success.

East Lansing, Michigan also has an ordinance that came about more because of the blight issue than a fire safety one. However, it has definitely served the purpose of helping to reduce the number of potential couch fires. According to Fire Marshal Gerald Rodabaugh, they have not had a couch fire on a porch in the last four or five years since the ordinance was put in place.

However, they are having more couches on the curb. In the past, someone would pay $25 to have a couch picked up by the city. The couch would be placed on the curb, tagged and the city would pick it up the same day. However, with the cutback in city services, the pickup time is now several days which is leading to more couches being set on fire on the curb.

Another community that addressed this problem through an ordinance was Farmville, Virginia, home of Longwood University. As with many of these ordinances, it started with the year-round residents complaining about how the off-campus student housing looked, reported Farmville Fire Chief Ben Sears. A code ordinance was put into place several years ago, “and fire safety was an added bonus,” he observed.   “Enforcement has not been that big of a problem,” said Farmville Property Inspector Kim Thompson. “I can usually drop off a letter, or if I catch someone there at the house, they usually take care of it.”

When it comes to educating the students about the ordinance, Longwood University has a mandatory orientation for students that are moving off-campus and this is one of the issues that is covered. “We do catch a few of them in the fall,” added Thompson, but the word does get out pretty quickly that it is not allowed.

Ann Arbor, Michigan, had originally tried to put forward an ordinance in 2003, but it was unsuccessful. Following the fatal fire in 2010 that claimed the life of a student, the fire department tried again and was able to get it in place, but not without some strong pushback from the students. However, when the final hearing was done on the ordinance, even though there was a large turnout of students, according to Ann Arbor Fire Marshal Kathleen Chamberlain, no one spoke against it after testimony from the family of the student that died in the fire.

A critical part of this effort was a study done by one of the fire fighters about the use of couches on porches where they were being used, how they came there in the first place, and the number of fires that had originated in couches. One of the interesting findings was that 60% of the couches had been left by the previous tenant – in other words, the students didn’t even try to find one, it was there when they rented the house. This led to the problem of couches being a self-perpetuating problem.

Fires on porches, whether from a grill or careless disposal of smoking materials, can be quickly exacerbated by the presence of upholstered furniture. There certainly are enough of these fires that have grown quickly and spread into the house, placing everyone at risk, to be a concern to any community. For more information, visit the RESOURCE page on Campus Firewatch for a Firelog of incidents going back to 2000 involving porches, decks and couches.