Fresno city leaders act after deadly house fire

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- A day after a house fire killed five people, city leaders are moving to prevent more.

Neighbors said the burnt out house has been boarded up off-and-on for 15 years. And the city has had issues with the owner for 20 years, and most recently had a city code enforcement officer board it up to keep the homeless out.

But transients got in anyway and they were unable to escape when the flames erupted Sunday morning.

The fire started in the one room where transients had managed to pry off a plywood board to get in. Neighbors heard the people inside screaming and banging on the boards over the windows, unable to escape. Five died of smoke inhalation, and one remains hospitalized on life support.

Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin stated that the fire is a tragic example of the dangers posed by abandoned properties in the city. "This has just been a real heartbreaking weekend to consider the loss of life we have had in the community because of a negligent property owner," Swearengin said.

Swearengin said the city had previously cited and fined the owner, who lives in Denver, but neighbor Jose Lara said it's been a problem for years. "On-and-off, it's been a problem for at least 15 years. For the last two-and-a-half months, it's really been a problem where the homeless come over every day. We seen men and women going in for a few minutes and coming out. Then we saw homeless staying in there."

Lara said he complained repeatedly and police came out several times. More boards were placed over the windows and doors, but the transients didn't stop. The fire department is not sure what caused the fire, but police detectives have been in the neighborhood.

Some relatives of the dead told Action News they believe the fire was deliberately set. Lara believes that's possible, because of where it started. "They were trapped in there because the fire started the only place that they had an exit and they couldn't get out because of the fire," Lara said.

The owner of the property, Brian Rosene and Randy Cunningham of Denver have been cited more than 100 times for code violations since 1999.

The city has already condemned and demolished three of their properties. The process was underway to deal with this house and the one next door. The city has so far identified about 2,000 abandoned properties in the city and housing advocates believe the number is closer to 10,000 -- more potential tragedies waiting to happen.
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