No record of fire inspections at warehouse prior to fire

Fire inspectors weren’t keeping an eye on Shed 17.

State and local officials couldn’t provide evidence that fire inspectors had ever gone inside the giant wooden warehouse near Weed where the lethal Mill Fire is believed to have started — even though hot ash from a nearby wood-burning electricity generator had been stored inside. Several fires broke out inside the building over the years.

In the wake of the Mill Fire, The Sacramento Bee filed numerous California Public Records Act requests and interviewed local and state officials, experts on fire hazards and the spokesman for the building’s owner, Oregon-based timber company Roseburg Forest Products. The Bee’s investigation found a number of troubling factors that might have enabled the fire that killed two people:

  • Two fire stations are a short distance from the Roseburg warehouse, but neither Cal Fire nor the city of Weed had responsibility for inspecting the building.
  • Siskiyou County, which contracts with Cal Fire for fire-protection services, could have asked the state agency to inspect Shed 17 but didn’t.
  • Government officials weren’t able to provide any records documenting whether they’d checked if Shed 17 had a functioning sprinkler system.
  • The lack of oversight at Shed 17 isn’t unique. Because of staffing shortages, fire officials in rural Northern California counties say they struggle to inspect all of the buildings for which they’re responsible.

The problems at Shed 17 could prove critical in determining how the Mill Fire started the afternoon of Sept. 2. Although Cal Fire hasn’t yet cited an official cause of the deadly fire, Roseburg officials have acknowledged it started in or around the building. They’re investigating whether a sprinkler system inside Shed 17 malfunctioned, possibly allowing the ash left over from the company’s electricity plant to ignite.

The fire quickly leapt from Roseburg’s property to an adjacent neighborhood, destroyed nearly 100 homes and killed two women: Lorenza Mondoc Glover, 65, and Marilyn Hilliard, 73.

 

State laws require annual inspections at certain buildings, such as schools, apartment complexes and hotels, to make sure they meet California’s fire codes. But those inspection requirements don’t cover certain industrial facilities, including warehouses such as Shed 17.

“A warehouse is not a state mandated inspection. So it’s not state mandated that it’d be completed annually. But we do try to get to those yearly,” said Jimmy Zanotelli, the fire marshal in nearby Shasta County. He and other rural fire officials said they often struggle to keep up with the mandatory inspections and often have to skip the inspections at warehouses and other industrial sites.

And even if fire officials had found the time to inspect Shed 17, no fire agency had been assigned to do so.

Roseburg’s sprawling mill complex is just outside Weed’s city limits, in unincorporated Siskiyou County. Nonetheless, Roseburg spokesman Pete Hillan said the company paid the city more than $50,000 a year under a contract to provide fire protection on its property.

The city’s fire station is located just a few hundred feet from Shed 17. Chief Steve Duncan said his department responded to “two small fires” at the building over the past few years. He didn’t provide details.

In an interview, Duncan said his small department didn’t inspect Shed 17 or other Roseburg facilities.

“We don’t do inspections for Roseburg,” Duncan said. “They have an independent company that does that.” He said he didn’t know the name of the company.

Hillan, the Roseburg spokesman, said he wasn’t aware of a private company inspecting the property on Roseburg’s behalf.

 

Siskiyou County doesn’t have a fire department. Unlike many other California counties, Siskiyou also lacks its own fire marshal who would be tasked with conducting fire-safety inspections.

Instead, the county, like several other rural counties, pays Cal Fire to fight fires and serve as the county fire department. The $550,000 contract, renewed annually, does not include funding for a fire marshal to conduct inspections. The agreement says Cal Fire is only to provide firefighting resources and dispatch services.

A box on the contract calling for Cal Fire to provide “Fire Code Inspection, Prevention and Enforcement Services” is left unchecked.

The Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors also appointed Cal Fire as the local “fire warden.”

The position entails acting as a liaison between Cal Fire and local officials around the county, said Bernie Paul, a retired Cal Fire chief in Siskiyou who spent several years as the fire warden.

“No real authority comes with it,” Paul said.

That includes a lack of power over fire code enforcement. A 1982 resolution passed by the Siskiyou Board of Supervisors says the Cal Fire warden “shall not have responsibility for enforcement of the rules and regulations of the State Fire Marshal.”

Put another way: Siskiyou County pays Cal Fire to fight fires but not inspect buildings; has a fire warden who is barred from enforcing rules; and does not pay for an independent fire marshal.

‘No request for any such inspection,’ Cal Fire says

Without a specific contract requiring the state to inspect buildings in Siskiyou, Cal Fire wouldn’t step in, said Ken Hale, a retired battalion chief with the agency.

“There’d have to be a contract,” Hale said. “The state would have to be reimbursed for the people who were assigned to do that work …. There’s no gentlemen’s agreement or gentlewomen’s agreement.”

Nonetheless, the county could have asked the Office of the State Fire Marshal, which is part of Cal Fire, to inspect the Roseburg building, said Cal Fire spokesman Chris Amestoy.

The county made no such requests, Amestoy said.

“In this specific case,” Amestoy said, “there has been no request for any such inspection, and therefore there are no records for any inspection of Shed 17.”

Hillan said the company believes various government agencies conducted inspections of other facilities on the Weed property, scrutinizing them for environmental oversight and other purposes.

But as for Shed 17, he said, “We’re trying to run those records down but we’re not aware of a state inspection of Shed 17.”

The Bee reached out to three top county officials for comment for this story: Angela Davis, the county administrator; Brandon Criss, chairman of the Board of Supervisors; and Michael Kobseff, the supervisor whose district includes the Roseburg property. None of them responded.

The Mill Fire might end up being a “wake up call to local government,” said Robert Rowe, founder of Pyrocop, Inc., a Southern California fire investigation and consulting company.

“There may be just a huge gap with regard to fire prevention duties in parts of Siskiyou County as well as the city of Weed,” Rowe said. “There may have been just this huge void of enforcement and nobody picked up on it.”

Shed 17 and a second building that shares a common wall, where Roseburg stored equipment, were scheduled to be torn down Sept. 19, Hillan said.

At the time of the fire, he said, “we were a half a truckload away from having the last bit of ash cleared out of the bunker.”

Both buildings were destroyed in the fire, although the rest of the Roseburg complex wasn’t damaged.

All that’s left standing of Shed 17 is the concrete ash-storage bunker itself, which is about 8 feet tall and runs roughly the length of a football field.

Mill reported no fire risk from ash

It’s still unclear what caused the Mill Fire, which carved a deadly path of destruction through Weed’s historically Black neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.

The fire burned 6 square miles before it was fully contained.

Cal Fire investigators have combed through the sprawling mill property and the wreckage of Shed 17, trying to determine an exact cause. It’s unclear when they’ll announce what happened.

But Roseburg has acknowledged that the fire appears to have started in or around Shed 17. The company said it began investigating whether a sprinkler system had been working properly to mix and wet-down hot ash stored inside the wooden building, although its investigation has been stalled while Cal Fire continues its review.

Hillan, the company spokesman, said Cal Fire is expected to return control of the premises to Roseburg next week, enabling the company to resume its own investigation.

Several law firms representing those who lost homes or loved ones have already filed lawsuits alleging Roseburg was negligent.

 

Roseburg should “should have known, that they were not properly operating and maintaining their warehouse and adjacent property such that it was likely to create and become a fire hazard” says a lawsuit filed by Joselito Bereso Candasa, whose mother — Lorenza Mondoc Glover — was one of the two people who died in the Mill Fire.

In 2009, despite warnings from area environmentalists about air pollution, Siskiyou’s Board of Supervisors granted Roseburg a permit to build a biomass plant on its sprawling Weed complex.

The plant, also known as a cogeneration facility, burned unused wood to produce electricity; state records show the power has been sold to utilities such as SMUD and Los Angeles’ municipal utility.

Over the years Roseburg has been storing ash from the biomass plant inside the concrete bunker built inside Shed 17, periodically hauling it away. Company officials have said a dedicated sprinkler system — separate from the building’s structure fire suppression system — kept the ash cool and wet inside the bin.

To try to understand whether safety lapses had been recorded at Shed 17, The Bee filed several requests under the California Public Records Act with the state, city and county in the days after the Mill Fire seeking inspection records, reports of fires on the mill property and local permits. Some requests are still pending, and the county said it wouldn’t provide some documents until around Thanksgiving. But documents that county officials have provided paint a picture of sporadic local oversight and minimal enforcement.

Of fire inspections: “No responsive record.”

Of code inspections: “No code compliance reports exist.”

Officials weren’t able to provide records of having checked Shed 17 for an operational sprinkler system.

The county’s Environmental Health Division is the one local government entity that conducts annual inspections at Roseburg’s mill. Each year, a local inspector tours the facility, evaluating chemical storage methods and other safety protocols. Roseburg does not appear to have had any serious violations in recent years, according to the records.

Separately, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency investigators sometimes visit the property, though not for fire inspections. In the 1980s, decades of industrial activity were found to have leached “high-threat contaminants” into groundwater. Cleanup took years. The property has been designated a Superfund site.

Roseburg also is required to provide Siskiyou County an inventory of what and how much hazardous material is on site and how it is stored. The company must list the risks posed by each item, including fire and pressure hazards from propane or health and fire hazards from wood dust.

Documents filed by Roseburg with the county Environmental Health Division say the company stored as much as 10,000 pounds of “bioash” from the electricity generating plant at any given time.

The ash posed acute and chronic health risks, and was listed as a hazardous substance.

But the company’s filings with the county didn’t list ash as a fire risk.

Siskiyou County has rules governing the storage of flammable materials, but the rules specifically exempt “processors of industrial or forest products.”

An expert on the biomass industry said she was surprised to hear that the company was storing the ash inside a building.

Ash from a wood-fired power plant can be dangerous if the wood chips and other debris known as biomass isn’t burned completely through “and still has some of the carbon in it,” said Sally Krigstin, assistant professor of forestry at the University of Toronto who’s studied fire hazards associated with biomass.

“That’s quite reactive,” she said. “That would be a risk. I’ve never heard of it being stored indoors. That’s very odd to me.”

How common were fires?

Five current and former Roseburg employees and two former city firefighters told The Bee in the days after the fire that over the years they’d each witnessed small fires ignite but were quickly extinguished inside the now-destroyed warehouse.

William Tate, a former superintendent of the on-site power facility, saw a fire break out in Shed 17 within his first two weeks on the job in 2016.

“I start losing my mind,” he told The Bee earlier this month. “Because, to me, this is a big deal. Everyone else’s reaction was pretty nonchalant because it happens all the time.”

Hillan on Tuesday repeated Roseburg’s earlier contention that the company isn’t aware of any previous fires inside Shed 17.

Weed’s fire station actually sits just a few yards from Shed 17. A Cal Fire station is less than a mile away.

 

In a 2014 report about emergency procedures, Roseburg said the Weed Fire Department would be the go-to agency in the event of a significant hazardous materials incident. The company said Cal Fire “has visited and is familiar with” the property and would contract with the city fire department “as needed.”

Duncan, the Weed fire chief, told The Bee Tuesday that his firefighters have responded to “two small fires” in Shed 17 over the past five years. Duncan said he didn’t have details about either fire.

The Bee has submitted requests under the Public Records Act for 10 years of Weed Fire Department calls to Shed 17. The city said those records wouldn’t be provided until early October.

Sheriff’s Office records show that seven fires were reported at the Roseburg complex between 2014 and 2019. They included a pile of bark catching fire in December 2015 and some wood chips that burned in March 2019.

The sheriff’s records, which were first reported Tuesday by the San Francisco Chronicle, don’t say whether any of those fires occurred inside Shed 17.

Hillan, the company spokesman, said Roseburg doesn’t believe any of the fires were in the warehouse.

But a lawyer pursuing litigation against Roseburg says the fires documented by the Sheriff’s Office demonstrate that the company wasn’t paying enough attention to the dangers on its property.

“They knew that their wood chips were catching on fire,” said attorney James Frantz, who’s suing Roseburg on behalf of a Weed family that lost their home in the Mill Fire. “They were not taking care of their business. They disregarded the safety of the community.”

Rural counties struggle to keep up

The Bee’s investigation reveals that such lapses in local fire-safety inspections at warehouses are common, particularly in California’s sparsely populated rural counties.

In these counties, even when officials have a designated local fire marshal, their building-inspection teams are often overworked and understaffed. The fire marshals say they often don’t have the time or the personnel to perform regular inspections at warehouses and other industrial facilities.

On a good day, it’s difficult for the lone fire inspector in nearby Shasta County to keep up with his inspection to-do list.

Zanotelli, the Shasta fire marshal, said he tries to send the inspector out every year to check out a large mill similar to Roseburg’s that is owned by a different timber company. It also has a wood-fired power plant onsite.

“Sometimes that doesn’t happen,” Zanotelli said. “But we do our best.”

Typically, rural counties only have an inspector or two tasked with evaluating certain high-risk residential and commercial buildings — schools, apartment buildings, hotels, and jails and the like. It’s a logistical challenge in their sprawling counties with landmasses of thousands of square miles.

Rural fire marshals told The Bee they struggle just to keep up with inspecting hundreds of these buildings every year, as required under the law, as well as every new home development to make sure it meets the state’s stringent wildfire-safety building requirements.

Too often, they said, warehouses don’t get inspected at all.

In Butte County, Chris Boyd, a captain with the county fire marshal’s office, joked that he’s part of “an extensive staff” consisting of him and a partner tasked with conducting more than 200 state-mandated inspections in the county each year. That doesn’t include writing reports, follow-up visits or the multiple inspections needed at each new home development in the unincorporated county.

There’s little time left to inspect warehouses and other industrial sites in the county, he said.

“It’s not that we don’t make the effort,” Boyd said. “It’s that we don’t have the personnel.”

 

Such problems were especially pronounced in Siskiyou County, one of the least populated of California’s 58 counties and home to 43,500 people, said Paul, the retired Cal Fire Siskiyou chief.

Paul said he and other members of the Siskiyou County Fire Chiefs Association, a nonprofit that promotes fire safety, have discussed how the lack of personnel makes it hard to get inspections done.

The association’s members have talked about the need for an inspector, or inspectors, to work with the fire departments in rural areas.

“They just don’t have the money to support a position like that,” he said, “and that’s where a lot of it falls through the cracks.”

It’s not just cause for concern in the far-flung reaches of Northern California. The inspection shortfalls in Siskiyou, Butte and Shasta are a statewide problem, said Jeff Willis, a board member with the Fire Districts Association of California.

Willis is also the chief of the Big Bear Fire Authority in San Bernardino County.

“We struggle to get our required inspections done every year,” he said.

On top of routine fire calls, small fire departments have been increasingly required to have expensive high-tech equipment and take on more and more work including medical calls.

Too often, Willis said, cash-strapped local governments have made building inspections a secondary consideration.

“There’s simply not enough (funding) to go around,” Willis said.

In 2019, Willis’ fire districts association supported legislation, Senate Bill 1205, that requires fire agencies to report to their governing boards just how many inspections they’re performing each year and the number of inspectors doing the work. The idea was to highlight shortfalls in inspections and to encourage decision makers to find funding to hire more inspectors.

But, Willis said, “that doesn’t mean that the elected officials and governing boards have the revenues to do that at their disposal.”

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @RyanSabalow