Complaint filed about Lake County motel before deadly fire

Firefighters concerned for years about Clearlake Oaks motel that caught fire Sunday, official says.|

A Lake County motel fire Sunday that left one man dead and displaced 23 people was in a building fire officials feared posed safety hazards and firefighters trained regularly for a response there, just in case.

Fire officials’ concerns led to a complaint filed last spring with Lake County officials that the owners of the Lake Haven Motel in Clearlake Oaks were in violation of county codes, said Northshore Fire Chief Jay Beristianos.

“It’s definitely been a building of concern,” the chief said Monday. “It is a motel, not an apartment for long-term use. A lot of people are living in each unit, using makeshift cooking facilities.”

Northshore firefighters got several calls at 1:30 p.m. Sunday that the aging downtown motel was on fire and that a man apparently was trapped inside his burning apartment.

Firefighters found the man dead on a couch inside his motel room. The fire apparently began in that room, according to fire officials.

The man, whose name wasn’t being released Monday while efforts were made to contact his family, was reportedly known in Clearlake Oaks where fire officials believed he’d lived for years. He’d apparently recently moved into the apartment.

“This is one of these we’ve been dreading,” the chief said of the fire. “Unfortunately we did have a person who died.”

“But we got lucky it wasn’t worse,” Beristianos said, pointing to the time of day and the extensive training done on the two-story cinder block and wooden structure.

The fire department early last year filed a complaint asking that the owner be forced to bring the building up to code. Fire personnel responding to a medical aid call said they found a resident’s refrigerator partially obstructing stairs, along with their access to the patient’s bed.

In an email to county building officials, Chief Beristianos said in the event of a fire he had “a real concern for life safety.”

The county in February issued a “notice of nuisance” and an abatement order against motel owner Robert Johanson for illegal conversion of a motel unit into an apartment, as well as for having substandard units, including electrical and fire alarm deficiencies.

But in a note to the county, Johanson responded that the property was in excellent condition, clean and served a need for low-income housing. He noted that he was continuing to pay the motel bed taxes and requested a hearing with the Board of Supervisors.

“Abatement will force people into a desperate situation for housing in the wintertime,” Johanson wrote to the county.

“He cleaned up the exterior of the property at that time,” Richard Coel, Lake County community development director, said Monday. “We can only cite things we can see. We didn’t go so far as to seek an inspection of the units.”

He said building officials were still planning to bring the matter to the Board of Supervisors for a hearing, but it didn’t stay a high priority.

Following the fire Sunday, Coel said the county has all the confirmation it needs to pursue a case against the property owner for an illegal conversion to apartments.

On Sunday, officials noted the exterior fire alarm system was not working, there were electrical issues, and there was a lack of smoke detectors, according to Coel.

He said the owner may face fines, but Coel was unwilling to comment on the possibility of any criminal complaint.

Following the fire, the county ordered all electricity cut off to the motel, and the owner boarded up the property.

For at least the past four years, local fire officials have considered the motel, built in the 1970s, dangerous and because of that it was the target of numerous training sessions. The last session was three months ago, said Pat Brown, Northshore’s deputy chief. “We’ve pre-planned for this building a lot,” said Brown.

There also is history on the street. “The exact same complex next door burned down 12 years ago,” Brown said Monday.

Issues with the building included that there was limited access to the back of the building and that at least one wooden stairwell was rickety and could make an escape difficult, the chief said. The Lake Haven Motel had no sprinklers, but some blaring smoke detectors did alert occupants to get out of their apartments. Why the one man didn’t get out remained under investigation.

It was the first fatal fire in Clearlake Oaks in three years, Brown said.

The Lake County arson task force has a preliminary cause, which wasn’t being released Monday pending further investigation, Brown said. He did say it didn’t appear to be deliberate.

Brown estimated the fire caused about $80,000 damage. As many as seven motel rooms were involved, with the majority of damage to the man’s room, and some fire, smoke or water damage to other units.

The training regarding that structure helped keep more of the building from burning, Chief Beristianos said. Such training is common in communities where fire departments typically have plans covering the variety of structures.

The once-thriving motel, in the center of the lake community, has become home to a changing group of typically low-income residents who live in the motel rooms as if they are apartments. The property generates the fire district’s highest number of calls for help due to medical needs of residents, Brown said.

Sunday, firefighters knew exactly how they should attack the fire and deal with the quirks of the property.

Brown said the difference to the effort was huge. They went in with a rescue plan, knew about an odd situation with hydrants and that they needed the parking lot at the adjoining Tower Mart market cleared of customers to allow room for the engines.

Brown, who lives in the area and was first to the scene, called for help from all four Northshore stations and from neighboring Lake County Fire, Cal Fire, Lakeport, Kelseyville and South Lake County Fire.

There were 35 firefighters on the effort.

The displaced residents, ?21 adults and two children, spent Sunday night in a local senior center and reportedly were being put up at other motels with assistance from the Red Cross.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 521-5412 or or on Twitter at #rossmannreport.

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