In West Fargo mobile home park prone to fires, Red Cross, firefighters bring free detectors

WEST FARGO - It was dangerously quiet when a fire started spewing smoke in a mobile home here in November.
Karmith Christensen, center, opens the door of his mobile home to West Fargo firefighters and Tom Tezel, regional disaster officer with the Red Cross, at the Brookwood Mobile Home Park on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. Rick Abbott / The Forum

WEST FARGO – It was dangerously quiet when a fire started spewing smoke in a mobile home here in November.

The home had a smoke detector, but the battery was lying on the floor. Meanwhile, a woman slept soundly, unaware that smoke was building.

The woman escaped the home at 105 12th St. E. when her boyfriend came home from work and woke her up.

If not for the boyfriend, "we could have had a very serious incident," West Fargo Fire Chief Daniel Fuller said Tuesday.

He told the story to a group of firefighters and volunteers for the American Red Cross who gathered at the central fire station for a briefing as they prepared to head out to the Brookwood Mobile Home Park.

Their mission? Visit 381 homes and offer residents smoke detectors, at no charge thanks to the Red Cross.

Ten three-person groups spread through Brookwood, which has seen many devastating fires in recent years.

The most recent is the one in November that Fuller described. A fire in March displaced a family; one in December 2013 affected a caregiver and seven children; fires on Thanksgiving 2013 and in February 2013 damaged homes; and homes were destroyed in three fires, in 2011, 2004 and 1996.

It's not that Brookwood necessarily has more fires than other West Fargo neighborhoods, but the blazes tend to be more severe, according to Fire Inspector Joey Porter.

Porter said a series of calls to the mobile home park showed that many homes did not have working detectors.

"Some people just forget about them and the batteries go dead, some people can't afford them, and then some people just don't care, to be honest," he said.

A fire can fill a house with lethal smoke without a sleeping homeowner knowing.

"You might not ever wake up and know there was a fire," he said.

At about 6 p.m., Porter's team headed out to the neighborhood with detectors, batteries and pamphlets that could be left at the door if nobody answered.

A man who answered the door at the first home Porter's team visited accepted three detectors and said he could do the installation himself. Other homeowners said they had detectors and believed they were working.

At one home, Tammie Bakko accepted an offer to have firefighters check to make sure her detectors were in working order.

"You guys are doing a good service," Bakko said. "Thank you for checking."

Firefighters in Fargo and Moorhead have distributed detectors to residents in a similar fashion in the past couple of years, said Judy Green, the Dakotas region executive for the Red Cross.

Fargo Battalion Chief Dane Carley said his department handed out 125 detectors in the Madison neighborhood in October 2014. Even more detectors were given out in the Jefferson neighborhood in September 2015.

Carley said the neighborhoods were selected either because they were lower-income or had a larger population of New Americans, who "aren't typically as aware of fire safety practices."

Statistics show that low-income areas tend to see more fires, he said.

"The fatality rates in homes without smoke detectors is much higher," Carley said. "It's absolutely important people because when people are sleeping, their senses shut down except for their hearing."