Heater, not failed inspection, led to Bellingham duplex fire that displaced 5

Bellingham firefighters battle smoke and flames at a duplex fire Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 908 Key St. No one was seriously hurt.
Bellingham firefighters battle smoke and flames at a duplex fire Wednesday, Oct. 5, at 908 Key St. No one was seriously hurt. Caleb Hutton

An unattended kerosene heater sparked a fire that displaced five people from a duplex this week in the Sehome neighborhood, firefighters confirmed.

Days before the fire, the house at 908 Key St. failed a rental inspection under a new city of Bellingham program. The house had exposed wiring in one of two units on the upper floor, and a water heater in the basement was not properly secured.

However, fire investigators don’t believe those concerns had any bearing on the cause of the Wednesday, Oct. 5, fire. Instead, the fire broke out soon after a tenant dipped a rope in a substance – it’s still not exactly clear what – and left the rope to dry beside a kerosene heater that was left on in the basement, Bellingham Assistant Fire Chief Bill Hewett said.

The substance might have dripped onto the heater, Hewett said, or the rope was too close. Or the heater may have simply malfunctioned. Regardless, the investigation showed the heater was the point of origin.

A woman in an upper unit noticed smoke around 5:20 p.m., and someone called 911 reporting explosions in the daylight basement, a shared storage area.

No one was seriously hurt, though a tenant who tried to put out the flames with an extinguisher had minor burns and singed hair. Flames scorched the basement, while smoke damaged the units on the upper floor.

The property had been registered as a single dwelling, but split into two units by the landlord, Wayne Chin. That is a code violation not handled under the city’s new rental inspection program, said Emma Burnfield, the program’s specialist. She said a report had been forwarded to the appropriate city office.

Chin owns seven properties in Bellingham, most of them near Western Washington University, according to county assessor’s records.

More than 200 rentals failed their initial inspection in the first wave of the city’s new program. At the house on Key Street, the first unit passed with conditions – it needed a carbon dioxide alarm and a breaker knockout in the electrical panel was uncovered – while the second unit failed due to exposed wiring, the leaning water heater, and a kinked cold water line on Sept. 27.

A follow-up inspection had been scheduled for Thursday. If it fails again, the landlord would have a third and final chance, Burnfield said, before being fined $50.

Caleb Hutton: 360-715-2276, @bhamcaleb