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Las Vegas officials vow close look at deadly Alpine Motel fire

Updated December 24, 2019 - 9:55 am

Two days after the deadliest blaze in city history, Las Vegas policymakers on Monday vowed to take a close look at the conditions that led to six deaths during a Saturday morning blaze inside an aging downtown residential motel.

But what exact action might stem from the fire at the Alpine Motel Apartments will be contingent on the results of an ongoing investigation to determine its cause and how people died, according to interviews with several Las Vegas City Council members.

Fire officials said the blaze appeared to have originated from a stove in a first-floor unit, and survivors told the Review-Journal that they routinely used stoves for warmth because they did not have heat.

“I promised (displaced residents) that we would have a full and thorough investigation, and what will come out of that, hopefully justice will be served because (there) seemed to be a lot of discrepancies going on at that facility,” Councilman Cedric Crear told reporters Monday.

Las Vegas Fire Marshal Robert Nolan said Monday that a search warrant was executed about 4:30 p.m. Sunday at the downtown apartment complex and that investigators returned Monday to gather evidence. He also said Las Vegas police are now taking the lead in the investigation.

The initial investigation determined that the fire was accidental, Nolan said.

“Subsequent investigations pursuant to the warrant will allow us to look for hazards, violations and possible conditions that may or may not be violations but did contribute to the rapid spread of smoke,” he said.

The three-story complex did not have a sprinkler system, according to Las Vegas Fire Department spokesman Tim Szymanski. Two residents told the Review-Journal that a bolted-shut back door prevented their exit, and others said the fire alarms did not go off.

Crear, who represents Ward 5, said that although there was a “history” of code enforcement cases against the property, all of them had been resolved at the time of the fire. Nolan said records indicated that the Fire Department had last visited the site in May 2017 for a complaint that the fire alarm system was not functioning correctly, but he said the issue was resolved within a week.

Malinda Mier, who identified herself as co-owner of the motel, said Saturday that the building was up to code. Each room had a smoke detector, and a fire escape was positioned in front of the building.

“It saddens me so much, and that is why I want to get to the bottom of it,” Councilwoman Victoria Seaman said.

Behind the curve

In the meantime, Councilman Brian Knudsen said, the council had asked for an inventory of similarly aged residential buildings. There are more than 2,000 “older” buildings within the city limits, according to Crear, whose ward encompasses where the fire occurred.

A Review-Journal investigation in late 2018 uncovered that a series of deadly fires were sparked in recent years at homes and apartments in wards 1, 3 and 5, where properties tend to be older and thus are not required by state law to keep up with the most current and stringent fire codes, like sprinklers and interconnected smoke alarms, enacted after their construction.

The Alpine Motel was built in 1972, property records show.

“After this horrible, tragic incident has transpired, I think it is worth our time, energy and effort to look into how we can update our processes,” said Councilwoman Olivia Diaz, a former assemblywoman. “And if it’s something that is more impacted at a state level, then for sure I wouldn’t shy away from engaging all my former colleagues at the Legislature and bringing awareness” to change that might be needed.

Crear said the city works closely with state lawmakers.

“Will this probably come to the forefront of the conversation? I would think so, but it’s not something that we shy away from,” he added.

Nolan said the investigation will provide information to steer both public education and city inspection criteria. If the probe and inventory check reveal that an issue exists and it is widespread, then turning to state lawmakers may be the best option even if implementing fire safety systems tends to be expensive.

“But if we did determine that that’s the best method to save lives, is to retrofit buildings with systems like they did in residential over 55 feet (tall) after the MGM Grand fire, it would take legislative change and we’ll see if that’s what conclusions lead us to support,” he said.

After 87 people died in a 1980 fire at the MGM Grand, now known as Bally’s, Nevada lawmakers required high-rise buildings more than 55 feet tall have sprinkler systems in all rooms.

The Review-Journal investigation also found that only 15 fire inspectors were tasked with checking more than 21,000 commercial and residential “inspectable occupancies” — one building can have multiple occupants or tenants — throughout the city. Las Vegas now maintains 16 inspectors, a city spokesman said.

“I think that it’s appropriate to review every opportunity we have to make sure that the community feels safe and is safe,” Knudsen said, adding that doing so means considering whether there are enough inspectors in the city and state.

“This is not unique to any city or county or state throughout the country,” he said. “As infrastructure ages, we need to make sure that appropriate protocols are in place to ensure it’s safe for people.”

Not only a city issue

Clark County also must deal with older buildings.

“The most important thing local government can do is be responsive to life-and-death situations like this,” said County Commissioner Michael Naft, who called it an important conversation to have with new County Fire Chief John Steinbeck.

Commissioner Lawrence Weekly said that lacking modern fire safety systems creates the risk of a similar situation happening in the future.

“This is a great time for the city and the county to have those conversations, to go back and look at those facilities that are not up to date,” he said.

Commissioner Tick Segerblom represents the district that covers the fire-prone Solaire Apartment complex on East Karen Avenue. The complex has caught fire more than 50 times since 2011. On Monday, Segerblom called for a county task force to address deadly residential fires.

“This is the wake-up call for all of us,” said Segerblom, who acknowledged letting the issue slip by since first pledging nearly a year ago to address it with the county fire marshal. “This is obviously something that could happen at any of those places.”

Commissioner Justin Jones saidthe county hired two additional fire inspectors for commercial buildings this year, allowing officials to “get a better handle on the issue, but we have more work to do.” He said he did not believe that either the county or the city had made it a priority to ask state lawmakers during the past legislative session to give the jurisdictions authority to require that older buildings meet new fire safety standards.

Local governments must obtain approval from Nevada’s Board of Examiners before they can adopt safety requirements that are more stringent than state statutes.

“Innocent people have died, and anytime that happens we have to look at how we prevent the next tragedy from happening,” he added. “If we do nothing, it’s fair to ask the question why we did nothing.”

Las Vegas spokesman Jace Radke said the city has made inroads beyond standard fire inspections over the past year. For example, Code Enforcement’s Winter Abandoned Building Program fast tracks fixes to open and accessible buildings, generally from mid-October to the end of March, and the newly created Dangerous Building Task Force promotes communication between fire and code officials to immediately address fire-damaged buildings.

Now as city and county officials wrestle with fire safety in older structures, some underscored that the conversation must include consideration for low-income individuals.

“Is there a way to prioritize older buildings that’s cost effective?” Segerblom said. “We don’t want to drive out poor people by raising the rents too much, but looking the other way is not acceptable.”

Knudsen said that discussions must weigh how much affordable housing the city should have.

“There’s probably a lot of work to do at the city, county and state level to make sure every building is up to code and we can minimize the amount of complaints that are coming in,” he said. “We also have to make sure there’s enough housing for people to go into.”

Contact Shea Johnson at sjohnson@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272. Follow @Shea_LVRJ on Twitter. Contact Michael Scott Davidson at sdavidson@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

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