It’s something of a miracle that no one has died because of the latest problems at Summerset Village Apartments in central Fresno.
Widespread natural gas leaks mixed with apartment units lacking smoke and carbon-monoxide detectors are a potentially lethal combination.
Given the complex’s long history of fires and absence of working smoke detectors, City Hall officials should throw everything in their code enforcement handbook at Summerset Village’s ownership representative, Chris Henry.
In fact, City Manager Bruce Rudd should tell the owner: Make things right there or else. We won’t tolerate your substandard, unsafe housing.
It’s not clear how long underground gas lines at the 220-unit complex were leaking.
This is known: Pacific Gas and Electric spokesman Denny Boyles said Tuesday that the utility was notified Nov. 12 of a potential gas leak at Summerset Village. PG&E workers “identified numerous gas leaks” that night, Boyles said, and the utility disconnected gas service the next day.
But City Hall officials say they didn’t learn that the complex had lost gas service until seven days later. During that time, Summerset Village residents – many of them impoverished Southeast Asian refugees – lost their heating and the ability to cook hot meals and take hot showers.
Boyles told a member of The Bee Editorial Board on Tuesday that PG&E notified the complex owner Nov. 13 that gas service had been disconnected. PG&E should have gone a step further and notified city officials that day as well. Just one phone call would have accelerated efforts to supply residents with electric blankets, mobile kitchens to prepare hot meals and mobile shower units for bathing.
Boyles said that PG&E is reviewing its response to the situation to identify areas “we can improve” upon.
The owner and managers of Summerset Village certainly have much work to do. Their response to this emergency has shown a callous disregard for tenants. The complex’s out-of-town owner should have given City Hall a heads-up Nov. 13. Instead, Rudd didn’t hear from the owner until Monday.
In addition, as The Bee’s Rory Appleton witnessed, Rudd, City Council Member Clint Olivier and three code-enforcement officials knocked on the property manager’s door around 6 p.m. Friday. He refused to answer. Rudd said the city “made numerous attempts” to contact both the manager and the owner that night but were unsuccessful.
Summerset Village is well known to local Red Cross officials and Fresno Fire Department crews because of a fire history that includes two deaths and at least three major fires since 1992.
On May 15, 2010, a 3:50 a.m. fire destroyed an apartment, damaged five others and displaced 16 adults and nine children. Fortunately, residents in another part of the complex were returning home when they saw smoke coming from a roof. They banged on doors and windows to wake up the sleeping residents. No smoke alarms were going off at the time, firefighters said.
On the morning of Jan. 8, 1997, a man who tried to rescue his 2-year-old son from their burning Summerset apartment died with him in a blaze that left five other families temporarily homeless.
The bodies of Bounchanh Kouantaamath, 47, and his son, Richard, 2, were found near a bedroom closet. Rin Hiev Meas, 45, Kouantaamath’s wife and Richard’s mother, escaped the fire with the couple’s four other children, screaming to alert neighbors.
A Fresno fire captain said there was only one smoke detector in the six-apartment building, and it was not in the apartment where the fire started. Said the captain: “Usually, when you go in to put the fire out, the smoke detectors are bugging the heck out of you. It was quiet in here.”
A 7 a.m. New Year’s Day fire in 1992 left 38 members of six families homeless but uninjured at the complex. Firefighters blamed a faulty wall heater for starting the blaze. The next day, Fresno’s fire marshal said that Summerset’s management was warned twice in 1991 of fire-code violations, among them the absence of smoke detectors, but that the apartments were never inspected again because of staffing shortages.
When she first ran for office, Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin promised voters that she would implement strategies to improve living conditions for impoverished families stuck in substandard housing.
Summerset Village is clearly unsafe and substandard. We expect her to keep her promise.