November 13, 2012

Burned out: The poor are more at risk for home fires and other disasters, and are less likely to recover

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

WATERVILLE -- The growing number of Maine families living in poverty are not only more likely to be the victims of a home fire, but they also have a more difficult time recovering from them.

click image to enlarge

Waterville firefighters battle a blaze at the corner of Drummond Avenue and Spruce Street in Waterville. Authorities blame the fire on faulty wiring in the attic. The fire displaced two families.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Janet White wipes tears from her cheek as Waterville firefighters battle a blaze that engulfed her apartment building on the corner Drummond Avenue and Spruce Street in Waterville.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below

Poverty facts

• In 2010, 14.8 percent of Maine residents were living in poverty, up from 12.6 percent in 2008.

• For children in 2010, 18.2 percent were living in poverty, up from 16.5 percent in 2008.

• In 2010, a record-high 43 percent of children in Maine were eligible for a free or reduced lunch benefit, including more than half of the children in Franklin and Somerset counties.

• Between 2002 and 2009, the number of individuals receiving food assistance nearly doubled in Maine, from 106,228 to 203,764.

Source: University of Maine’s Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center

Long-term costs of a fire

When an electrical fire destroyed the home of the White family three months ago, they lost almost everything they owned. Today, they have food, shelter and clothing but their financial situation has worsened considerably:

• They replaced their washer and dryer from a rent-to-own appliance store. The bill is $125 a month, about 5 percent of their total income.

• In the weeks following the fire, they paid out-of-pocket for a night in a hotel using money that would have otherwise paid the phone bill. The bill remains one month behind and has been accumulating late payments ever since.

• Under pressure to find a new apartment quickly, they took an apartment with a higher rent, increasing their rent payments by about $80 per month.

• As they slowly replace food items like seasonings, flour and oils, the food assistance they receive no longer covers a month’s worth of food, leaving them to turn to area food pantries.

• Other items damaged in the fire include their truck, Jeff White’s “livelihood tools,” which he valued at about $4,000 and an electric stimulation device he used to manage the pain in his back.

• The fire has also added a burden to extended family. Jeff White said that, without transportation, he calls his mother to drive her truck from Pittsfield to take him to doctor appointments, resulting in significant gas costs for her.

Stabilizing those whose lives are torn apart by a fire, flood or other natural disaster, including victims of superstorm Sandy, would require a massive restructuring of the public aid system, according to Charles Colgan, a professor of public policy and management at the University of Southern Maine's Muskie School of Public Service.

One Waterville family living in poverty is still feeling the effects of an August fire that left them temporarily homeless.

Even before the blaze consumed the Spruce Street apartment rented by newlyweds Jeff and Janet White, they were struggling.

Jeff White, 37, a carpenter by trade, can't work because of injuries stemming from a car accident 15 years ago when his back was broken. He's used to working with his hands, hunting and fishing. Now he's often frustrated by the injury.

"This isn't me -- just sit around the house all day long," he said. "I tried to rake some leaves, and I was on my back for three days. I go out and putter for a little bit during the day and when I get hurting, I come back in."

Janet White, 32, has worked only briefly since she first got pregnant in eighth grade. She's spent most of her life raising children, who now range in age from 4 to 17. One son is receiving counseling for emotional and mental problems.

The Whites receive benefits totaling about $2,300 a month from an array of public aid programs, including Section 8 housing, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and Supplemental Security Income for the disabled.

A recent report from the University of Maine found that nearly 15 percent of Mainers are living in poverty, defined as earning annually less than $21,200 for a family of four, or $10,400 for an individual.

After getting married on the Fourth of July, the Whites were making small steps to get ahead. Janet White had begun saving toward a driving course so that she could get her license. Jeff White had scheduled a back surgery so that he could go back to work, where he could make as much as $25 an hour.

Risk of crisis

They didn't know it, but the Whites were at an increased risk of having their home burn down, just by being poor.

Socioeconomic factors are the very best predictors of increased fire risk, according to an analysis published by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The report says fires are two to three times as common in areas with high levels of poverty.

One reason is that poor families often live in older houses that are more susceptible to fire risks, such as faulty wiring.

A faulty wire is exactly what caused the fire that turned everything the White's own, with the exception of a few wall hangings and Jeff White's cellphone, to ash.

Immediately after the fire, the family spent two weeks in a hotel room. They focused on their immediate needs, such as clothing, the next meal and funding for the next night's stay.

At that point, the Whites were in the "crisis" stage, according to Colgan.

"You get a crisis like this and you have so little in the way of spare resources in terms of money and time, you have to tend to the most immediate things," he said.

The Whites are also typical in that, during this stage, they received a large amount of help from the community, with a combination of donations from individuals and charitable organizations paying for the hotel room.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors

Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Janet White comforts her son, Dakota LaBrie, 11, in the hotel room that has been serving as home. The Whites had very little money at the time of the fire that destroyed their home, so extended periods of time in a hotel has been very costly.

click image to enlarge

Rusty Wing, 14, left, and his step-brother, Dakota LaBrie,11, organize donated goods from charities at their new apartment on King Street in Waterville.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Raymond and Dakota LaBrie sit on the floor and try to get a donated, 12-inch, black-and-white television to work, on their first night in the family's new apartment on King Street in Waterville. According to their mother, Janet White, this is the first time the children have had their own rooms to sleep in, a positive side to the family's displacement by a fire that destroyed their Waterville home.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Janet White pushes her daughter, Savannah LaBrie, in a stroller as Jeff White carries groceries, after shopping at Family Dollar in Waterville on Nov. 2. Their car was also destroyed in the same fire that burnt their Waterville home, leaving the family to rely on friends and family to get around town. On this day they couldn't find a ride and had to walk the two miles from home to the store.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Jeff White gives his step-daughter, Savannah LaBrie, 4, a hug at the family's apartment on King Street in Waterville.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans


Further Discussion

Here at we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)