By KAREN LAW, contributing writer
Published January 13, 2016
The fire at The Bluffs Apartments on Casino Road in Everett killed one person and 15 others required medical care.
EVERETT — People came to assist immediately when more than 100 people lost their homes in the three-alarm New Year’s Eve apartment fire at The Bluffs at Evergreen, and are continuing to help victimized families.
The Red Cross Disaster Action Team (DAT) of Snohomish County was at the scene within minutes, and set up a full-service emergency shelter at Bible Baptist Church about a half-mile away.
The three-alarm blaze started as a mattress fire, but the cause could not be determined, Everett Fire officials said last week. A 65-year-old man died from smoke inhalation in the fire.
The shelter housed approximately 30 people the first night, but the number rose to 47 as of Tuesday, Jan. 5 and the crew of volunteers was clearing a new room in expectation of more people.
Importantly, case managers at the Red Cross shelter are helping the fire victims navigate social service resources so they can find new homes as quickly as possible.
“I got the call around 7:30 p.m. (New Year’s Eve) and started calling everyone on our Disaster Action Team (DAT),” said Mass Care Lead volunteer Carol Janssens.
Despite logistics difficulties reaching volunteers because of the holiday, Janssens and other Red Cross coordinators soon had vans and other vehicles loaded with blankets, cots, food, toiletries and personnel on their way to the church, along with a bus dispatched from Everett Transit to provide shelter transport.
“People try to stay with friends and family first, but we’re here for them when that no longer becomes possible. We’ll be here as long as needed,” Janssens said.
Many of the fire victims are Spanish-speaking with limited English fluency, so interpreters from the non-profit group Hand in Hand and other organizations were brought in.
A grassroots group led by John Guihan also pitched in by collecting clothes and necessities.
Red Cross spokeswoman Jacqueline Koch wanted to get the word out that all residents displaced by the fire do not actually have to live at the shelter to receive Red Cross care and supplies. They are accepted regardless of American citizenship status.
“We have licensed nurses and professionals on-site giving medical and emotional support and they can just come in anytime,” Koch said. “We can help the tenants replace medications or fill prescriptions or replace eyeglasses, canes and walkers. Whatever’s been lost in the fire that’s health-related—and it’s free.”
In addition to food and clothing and a warm place to bunk, the Red Cross shelter is providing every displaced tenant with medical/health and counseling services and a team of caseworkers.
Seven of the building’s 30 units were affected by the fire, and the remaining 23 units were damaged by smoke and water. The fire spread quickly in the attic.
Property owner Coast Real Estate Services, based in Everett, took flack on how it initially handled displaced tenants.
Shortly after the fire, property managers were ready to issue security deposit refunds but put a clause in requiring tenants to sign a form waiving any claims against Coast.
The receipt’s language also required tenants to respond immediately when notified to retrieve salvageable belongings from their apartments or forfeit them if not picked up within 72 hours and they could only enter their units with an escort hired by the apartment complex. However, fences had already been put up for security.
Some residents had cars towed away to make room for fire and rescue operations, and received tow yard bills to get their vehicles back. Other residents reported that they were told to sign new leases at higher rent if they wanted to stay.
The property management had reportedly even barred translators from helping displaced renters who didn’t understand the waiver.
These issues were reported by residents at a meeting last week between displaced residents and Snohomish County Legal Services to provide advice about tenant rights.
Public criticism against the property management’s actions led to news later last week that all security deposits would be refunded as well as any towing and impound fees.
Coast Real Estate Services’ president, Shawn Hoban said the waiver had been “hastily” put together by staff and applied to personal property lost in the fire. Hoban said residents do not need to sign it and that translators could attend meetings if needed and expressed no knowledge of why staff had barred them.