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Posted on Sat, Oct 1, 2011 : 5:30 p.m.

Porch couch enforcement 'going to get a lot more rigorous' after Saturday morning fire and rescue

By Jen Eyer


The Black Elk cooperative house, at 902 Baldwin Ave.

Photo from

Residents of the student Black Elk Cooperative House in Ann Arbor say more fire prevention education is needed after a couch caught fire on their front porch early Saturday morning.

If it hadn't been for the quick action from passersby who extinguished the fire with a garden hose, the fire would have spread to the house in minutes and potentially trapped residents inside, Ann Arbor fire officials said.

A city ordinance passed in 2010 bans upholstered furniture on porches, but Black Elk co-op president Kayla Gonyon said she thought this particular couch was legal because it was made of solid wood, with just a thin cushion on it.

"We knew about the couch ban, and when that went into effect we removed upholstered couches," said Gonyon, who is a graduate student at the University of Michigan. "But we thought this kind of couch was OK. No one has ever mentioned it."

Located at 902 Baldwin Ave. near Washtenaw Avenue, the Black Elk house has 22 residents and is a member of the Inter-cooperative Council. Gonyon said she plans to attend the next ICC meeting to talk about the need for more education and fire safety training.

"I think there are still other houses in our organization that have couches on the porch," Gonyon said.

Resident Rhiannon Haller added she'd like to see houses install smoke detectors on porches, since that is often where people go to smoke.

Ann Arbor Fire Lt. Phil Smith said the fire likely started from a smoldering cigarette butt. He said there was evidence of smoking, including several ashtrays on a table in front of the couch.

"We found no other evidence of accelerants on there, so the most probable cause is smoking," Smith said.

Smith said the house likely will be cited because the couch was an indoor couch, not a patio couch. Violations of the ordinance result in a fine up to $1,000. The charred couch has been removed.

The fire was first spotted by Kurt Kamper of Duluth, Minn., who was out for a jog. Kamper was in town for the Minnesota at Michigan football game, and was staying with friends in the Burns Park area.

Kamper said as he approached the house, he sensed the fire, and when he got in front of the house, he could see the couch engulfed in flames.

"I went to the side door and pounded but no one responded, so I went back around and could see that the front of the house was starting to get charred,” Kamper said.

“I thought, I need to alert the fire department. I was worried that no one was responding."

Kamper said he saw a group of college-aged people walking on the other side of Washtenaw Avenue and yelled for help. The group approached, and someone called 911, Kamper said.

Dispatch received the call at 7:42 a.m., Smith said.

Kamper said although fire officials initially credited the "unknown jogger" with extinguishing the fire, he actually left once he knew fire trucks were on the way.

At some point between the time he left and the time the trucks arrived at 7:47 a.m., the fire had been extinguished with a garden hose attached to a spigot about 10 feet from the porch, Smith said.

"They did a great job putting it out. If it had gone unnoticed, next thing you know you might have people trapped because the tenants were unaware," Smith said. "Another few minutes and it would have grown to the point where a garden hose wouldn't have been able to put it out."

Gonyon said she's grateful to those who put out the fire. She said when she got outside, there was a big group of people in front of the house, but she didn't get any names.

"They saved our house and our lives, probably," Gonyon said. "Everyone in the house was fast asleep."

There was a little bit of smoke in the structure, but the fire was contained to the couch and a little bit of the porch, according to fire officials. No one was injured, and damages are estimated at less than $500.

ICC General Manager Erik Lipson expressed frustration that students are still putting flammable materials on their porches. He the ICC supported the couch ban and since then has worked continuously to educate residents about the risks.

"At our last board meeting, we urged our members to make sure there was no stuffed furniture on porches," Lipson said. "It's extremely disheartening that people don't take this more seriously."

Lipson said he is relieved the fire was relatively minor, but that ICC is taking the situation seriously and will begin monitoring houses more often. Smoke detectors are a possibility, Lipson said, but it's more important to get residents to comply with the law.

"Our enforcement is going to get a lot more rigorous," Lipson said. "We're going to go around to the houses on a regular basis. I've already talked to our maintenance director about it."

According to records with the City of Ann Arbor, the house was last inspected in 2009 — before the couch ban. Rental houses in Ann Arbor are inspected once every 30 months.

Jen Eyer is director of audience engagement for Reach her at or (734) 623-2577.



Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 6:50 p.m.

What is interesting here is the fact that the couch was made of wood and a cushion put on top. So, does that mean wicker furniture with cushions on it is also illegal because that makes it an indoor piece of furniture? Just getting some definitions of indoor and outdoor furniture.

Wolf's Bane

Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 8 p.m.

Where is common sense? Hello? Common sense?


Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 6:32 p.m.

A city can have all the ordinances it wants, but if there is little enforcement, the ordinances will do little. I remember a story this summer about multiple barking dogs in a city neighborhood with many repeated complaints over 4 years and nothing done, no fines, until finally the owner was told to give up 3 of the 6 dogs this past summer, as I recall. Just one example of ordinances not being enforced. There are many examples of this. Snow removal on sidewalks in residential areas is another good example of the lack of enforcement and lack of fines. I don't have much faith that the couch ordinance will be heavily enforced in A2. The landlords need to get stiff fines in order for anything to change in this regard.

Ron Granger

Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 5:34 p.m.

We need local government to conduct rigorous couch inspections and interviews. That's it - couch interviews! That always saves the children.


Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 4:37 p.m.

Absolutely more laws and more enforcement are required here. In fact let's not stop at banning porch sofas. Let's ban all furniture altogether. Indoor furniture can burn just as easily as outdoor after all. In fact, let's just ban all buildings made of wood. Only cinder block dwellings with bare floors, no furniture, and no stoves or cooking implements whatsoever. I mean, it's all about protecting the children right?

Wolf's Bane

Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 2:36 p.m.

Nice logic there, Black Elk co-op president Kayla Gonyon? Thinking a particular couch is legal just because it was made of solid wood, with just a thin cushion on it! For Christ sakes, a couch is sofa, is a couch. Clearly, this law has probably already saved countless lives if not also prevented countless house fires this semester. However, as this type of flagrant disregard for our laws and ordinances persists nothing will change. Therefore, I vote for Kayla's immediate dismissal and made an example of!

Wolf's Bane

Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 4:55 p.m.

Yeah, I guess membership has its privileges... NOT!


Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 4:14 p.m.

Attempting to comply with the law and failing as a result of a misunderstanding does not constitute "flagrant disregard" for the law. Kayla's logic would fare better in a court of law than yours. Additionally, unless you happen to be a member of the Black Elk cooperative, you cannot vote for or recall officers. But if you are indeed so impassioned, I think we have a spot opening up beginning Winter semester - we have open membership, so first-come, first-served!


Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 1:38 p.m.

"He the ICC supported the couch ban and since then has worked continuously to educate residents about the risks." -You're missing a word there Secondly, maybe smoking on the porch should be banned. Seeing as these houses are public buildings (they're being rented by several people) shouldn't the 25 feet or whatever it is now be enforced. Something needs to be done to prevent these fires from happening over and over again.

Ron Granger

Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 1:13 p.m.

Then why no smoke detectors on porches?

hut hut

Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 12:55 p.m.

"get a lot more rigorous" means a slap on both wrists. Grad students clueless? It's going to be a bumpy ride into the future.


Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 4:19 p.m.

On the contrary, "get a lot more rigorous" means that the ICC will assist houses in removing illegal furniture. From an e-mail sent out to membership after the fire yesterday: "ICC officers will be inspecting all porches over the next few days and offering assistance to remove any and all noncompliant furniture. There are wonderful alternatives available and we'll work together to supply them. The risk is simply not worth a human life." I'd also like to point out that the "ICC officers" are primarily college students. We're taking this seriously, thank you very much.


Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 11:06 a.m.

Although all these rules and ordinances might seem to be over-kill or excessive invasion of ones right to live, we must remember that these people are students - irresponsible, uncaring, ignorant and selfish. Rarely considerate of anyone else, and have an over-exaggerated sense of entitlement. They're just students being students, with no sense of mortality. Good luck in stopping porch fires, or even the ugly, rednecked habit of putting couches on porches.


Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 3:56 p.m.

Actually, we're not all students. The assertions about students in general are also wildly incorrect.

West of Main

Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 2:27 p.m.

You are incredibly offensive.

Tom Joad

Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 2:55 a.m.

I'll go a step further and suggest any kind of multi-occupancy building institute a complete ban on smoking or use of candles in the house of any adjacent porch or deck. It's well enough to ban the use of highly flammable upholstered furniture on porches but the proximate cause of a fire is usually always an un-extinguished cigarette butt or a wayward ember from a joint. Use of candles is a potential danger as well because they are an open flame that can easily catch curtains on fire or papers blown throughout the house when an exterior door is opened and a draft is created. From the account in the article these residents narrowly escaped a potential deadly conflagration of the entire structure because one irresponsible smoker. Smoke inhalation is the single greatest killer in a fire and an early morning blaze would be horrendous with people asleep.


Sat, Oct 1, 2011 : 11:40 p.m.

Nicely done Mr. Kamper!

Bob Martel

Sat, Oct 1, 2011 : 11:13 p.m.

According to DBH's post, the law reads that "no responsible person shall place, or permit to remain, upholstered ..." Since we are dealing with students here, and not "responsible persons," does the law still apply?? ;-)

Wolf's Bane

Sun, Oct 2, 2011 : 2:37 p.m.

Unbelievable, really. The logic is just classic denial.


Sat, Oct 1, 2011 : 10:29 p.m.

According to the story on from 9/20/2010, the story says "City officials say the ordinance won't prevent all types of furniture from being used on porches — it applies only to those that are upholstered and not meant for outdoor use. The language of the ordinance specifically reads, "No responsible person shall place, or permit to remain, upholstered furniture which is not intended or designed for outdoor use on exterior balconies, porches, decks, landings, or other areas exposed to the weather." This indicates to me that upholstered furniture (including couches) would be permissible if intended or designed for outdoor use. If this is correct, I think the ordinance needs to be revised to proscribe any furniture that is not demonstrably fireproof, since it does not seem to me that upholstered furniture intended or designed for outdoor use would necessarily (or even likely) be fireproof.