The Legacy of Renden Lemasters
A young man's death made the city safer
In the early hours of June 15, 2004, a couch caught fire on the porch of a house on Oakland Avenue. Fed by the sofa's stuffing, the blaze quickly engulfed the structure, putting two of the U-M football players who lived there into the hospital and injuring three other people, including two firefighters.
In the aftermath, the fire department asked city council to forbid upholstered furniture on porches. But student activists vigorously opposed the "couch ban," and the issue was tabled, apparently indefinitely.
Almost six years later, in the early morning of April 3, 2010, a trash container caught fire on the porch of a house on South State. The fire spread to a nearby couch and then to the house itself. This time, two people were injured--and twenty-two-year-old EMU student Renden Lemasters died.
Fire Marshal Kathleen Chamberlain arrived at the fire with the first responders. "It brought the fear we all had to the surface," says Chamberlain, "and let us see the very real consequences of what can happen when upholstered furniture catches fire. They provide tremendous amounts of fuel and generate tremendous amounts of heat very, very quickly."
Afterward, council again took up the couch ban. This time, the fire marshal enlisted the Lemasters family to the cause.
"Kathleen Chamberlain came to me a week after the fire and told me they needed help to get it through," remembers Kim Lemasters, Renden's mother. "We went to council meetings and spoke through the summer and into the early fall."
"There was some concern that it was a tidiness proposal slipped in under the guise of a safety proposal--that we meant to regulate outdoor socializing--when nothing could've been further from the truth," says Third Ward rep Christopher Taylor, who sponsored the ban. But "the data we gathered was irrefutable, and there was no opposition on council and little to none from the public."
The data was indeed irrefutable. Chamberlain found there had been at least 124 fires involving upholstered porch furniture in the
previous ten years--fires that had spread to the rest of the house. More significantly, the fires had injured seven residents and killed Renden Lemasters. Council unanimously banned upholstered furniture--along with trash containers and grills--from porches in September 2010.
Before the ban, Ann Arbor averaged more than one porch fire a month. In the sixteen months since, there's been just one--and that fire, Chamberlain says, "involved an upholstered piece of furniture on a porch, which [by law] should not have been there to begin with."
"The reduction in fires is very encouraging," Kim Lemasters writes in an email, "and helps me remember that something positive came from the fire that claimed my Renden's life. I'm thankful that other families will not have to go through what we have been through."
[Originally published in February, 2012.]