, city officials said progress is underway to repair the houses and help the residents move forward.
Two single-story homes, at 140 and 142 Grant St., caught fire just before 6:30 p.m. Tuesday when a blaze sparked in the storage shed behind one of the houses where an extension cord was being used to provide power, according to the Watsonville Fire Department.
Firefighters quickly extinguished the flames and all 17 residents of the two homes escaped without injury.
Wednesday morning, a few residents quietly poked around the back of the burned houses and the stench of charred wood hung heavy in the air. Foamy water puddled in the driveway between the two houses and a few children's toys littered the ground.
Watsonville Fire Chief Mark Bisbee said the man who owns the rentals is already taking steps with the city to repair the properties, which are just a block from the police station, but the timeline to make the houses live-able again was unclear.
Meanwhile, the local chapter of the American Red Cross helped the displaced residents—12 from 142 Grant and a family of five living at 140 Grant—find other housing. The owner of the rentals also was assisting in that process, according to Bisbee.
"They have other available rentals that are vacant they're trying to get the families into," Bisbee said.
Although it seems a dozen people living in a single-family home that's just over 600 square feet would be illegal, Bisbee said it doesn't violate the state standards. Those rules, which are not set at the local level, require 50 square feet per person in a house.
"If they had 600 square feet, they could have 12 people," Bisbee said. "The standard for the amount of people in houses is very dense."
Overall, Watsonville is one of the most densely populated cities in the state and the neighborhood of older homes where Tuesday's fire ignited is one of the most tightly packed in the city.
"That's a very dense neighborhood," Bisbee said. "Houses are small and close together."
The fire department operates a special "tiller truck" to better navigate narrow streets and alleys, but Bisbee said fighting fire in highly populated areas—be it neighborhoods like Grant Street or apartment buildings—boils down to one key point.
"It just means you have to act quickly," he said.
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