EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 20, 2013

Gas service shutoffs make dangerous situations

By Bill Kirk
bkirk@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — A health inspector said a fire in an apartment building on Union Street Thursday morning highlighted a common problem around the city: People who can’t afford their gas bills are resorting to using temporary, electric space heaters to warm up their homes and microwave ovens instead of gas stoves to do their cooking.

Ray Hileman, the lead housing inspector for the Board of Health, said he has given several tenants of 103-107 Union St. a 24-hour notice to get gas service or he will seek criminal complaints against them in Housing Court for violating the state sanitary code.

“Everybody has to have a gas account” for heating and cooking, he said. Temporary space heaters and microwave ovens do not comply with the law, even though the practice has become more and more common around the city by cash-strapped residents.

Tenants can continue living in the Union Street building, but they must open gas accounts, he said. “The only time gas, water or electric service can be off is for repairs or if the property is vacant,” he said.

The fire broke out around 7:30 a.m. Thursday in a beauty salon at 103 Union St. when an outlet that had several space heaters plugged into it overheated and ignited a bench that was leaning up against the back wall of the business.

A dog alerted neighbors, who sprayed the blaze with a fire extinguisher. A sprinkler system in the building also knocked down the fire. Firefighters were able to quickly get the fire under control and remove the bench that was on fire. The building, which houses eight apartments and one business, did not sustain any structural damage. The inside of the salon sustained some smoke and water damage.

The fire, however, alerted firefighters to the fact that gas had been turned off to about half of the building due to non-payment.

Hileman said that on one side of the building, which was recently foreclosed on, the gas service is on. But on the other side, the gas service has been turned off to the salon and two occupied apartments. The rest of the apartments are not occupied, he said.

He said he has spoken to the tenants of the occupied apartments and told them they need to sign up for a gas account or face legal action in Housing Court.

Hileman said that other than the fact that the gas was shut off, the apartments are in good shape and “habitable.”

He didn’t know if any children lived in the building.

During the inspection, Hileman said he also discovered that a nearby grocery store didn’t have gas. He gave the owners of that store a citation as well, ordering them to get gas service.

Hileman said it’s not just a sanitary issue.

He spoke to the husband of the woman who owns the beauty salon and told him the fire could have been much worse.

“I said, ‘You don’t know how dangerous this is. There are people living in this building,’” Hileman said.

Lawrence fire Deputy John Marsh said the way the building is constructed, if not for the sprinkler system dampening the fire, the building would have gone up in flames in minutes.

“That would have been a raging inferno,” he said, noting that the structure is made up of two, triple-decker tenements that have been attached. “It would have been a bonfire.”

The property is owned by City National Bank of Los Angeles, which foreclosed on the property in August. According to the Registry of Deeds, the property carried a $685,000 mortgage. It is managed by CRE Management LLC of Pearl Street in Boston. A call to that office was not returned.

Assessed at $320,000, the property was formerly owned by Wade Willwerth.