The recent deadly fires in the Bronx and Philadelphia have placed a spotlight on racial and economic disparities in urban housing and mounting fire-prone risks caused by them.
In the past week, both blazes have claimed more than 30 lives, including more than a dozen children. Another 63 people were injured in the Bronx blaze on Sunday. CNN reported that about half of the victims were hospitalized with life-threatening conditions.
News reports indicate many of those impacted by the Bronx fire were from the Gambia in West Africa. A GoFundMe was launched on behalf of the Gambians Youth Organization to help provide relief to residents.
Three Black women and nine of their children died in the rowhouse fire in Philadelphia last week.
Officials in both cities were quick to point to possible causes, seemingly laying blame on the affected families, these residential fires point to a broader issue of equity and safety in the nation’s housing stock.
Data shows that Black people are almost twice as likely to die in a residential fire than the national average. They are also more than twice as likely to suffer injury.
It’s easy to dismiss both fires as accidents resulting from individual behaviors. But the underlying conditions in distressed housing are a systemic problem. These problems aren’t new.
Growing up in the late 1980s, my family lived in a building less than two miles from the site of the Bronx fire. When our building had a fire, we were unable to safely evacuate. By the time my mother and aunt realized there was a dangerous situation, the smoke consumed the hallway and stairwells. Two adults and five children under the age of 8 simply hunkered down and hoped for the best. We were lucky.
The alleged issues with the space heater in the Bronx fire or the overcrowding in the apartment in the Philly fire are common challenges facing many households around the country. Coupled with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and rising heating costs, families are struggling to make ends meet.
“As a tenant organizer, I’ve seen so many apts without adequate heat, leading to tragedies like yesterday’s fire in the Bronx,” Assemblymember Phara Souffrant Forrest tweeted. “My heart goes out to all the families who were affected. Please donate to support them if you can and join me in organizing to hold landlords accountable.”
Poor heating systems coupled with high heating bills make the space heater a lifesaver in the winter months. Space heaters accounted for 85 percent of deaths in residential fires. According to news outlet The City, residents of the Bronx building reported issues with “inconsistent heat” over the years leading to the use of space heaters.
While a space heater may have been the initial cause of the Bronx fire, reporting from The City indicates that a self-closing door failed to do its job which could’ve contained the fire.
Improving fire safety awareness and installing smoke detectors have helped reduce the number of residential fires over the past several decades. A report from the National Fire Protection Association examining the relationship between poverty and residential fires recognized the limitations of such efforts.
People also might ignore a smoke alarm going off if the alarms are prone to go off for random reasons unrelated to an active fire. Sprinkler systems could alleviate some of the issues, but many buildings do not have them with landlords risking fines instead of investing the money for upgrades.
Reminding people of how to safely heat their homes with a space heater or encouraging them to have a fire safety plan could help reduce some fire-related deaths. But ultimately comprehensive solutions need to be adapted to improve outcomes for families like those who lost loved ones over the past week.