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Lessons from the Ghost Ship Fire 

Safety in public spaces is a priority for local officials—but artists say the deadly Oakland fire is a testament to the financial squeeze put on creatives

Derek Sitter, owner of Volcanic Theatre Pub, and Larry Medina of Bend Fire inspect the venue's sprinklers, just one of many safety measures implemented at the venue.

Derek Sitter, owner of Volcanic Theatre Pub, and Larry Medina of Bend Fire inspect the venue's sprinklers, just one of many safety measures implemented at the venue.

Earlier this month, 36 people died in the fire inside the Ghost Ship, a multipurpose artist's space and sometimes-venue in Oakland, Calif. According to reports from survivors, escaping the second-floor gathering space required navigating through a confusing maze of smoke and turning staircases. Officials in Oakland have ruled out arson, according to Oakland's "East Bay Times," but are looking at an overloaded electrical system as the cause.

The Ghost Ship building was permitted as a warehouse but was home to many artists. According to the "East Bay Times," the warehouse appeared to have never undergone a safety inspection.

In a city as large as Oakland, failing to notice a building's absence from inspection rolls may not seem so unusual. In a small city such as Bend, one might think the opposite—but that's not necessarily the case.

Oregon adopted its first Uniform Building Code in 1973, which became effective in 1974. If a building was built before that time and its owners haven't applied for any remodeling permits or haven't put the building on the market, there's a chance that it wouldn't be on the radar of local officials such as the fire department and the building department.

The monitoring of old buildings that haven't come up for a permit or sale largely relies on a complaints-driven system, says Billy Staten, assistant building official for the City of Bend. With that, it's easier to see how situations such as the Ghost Ship fire could have happened—but it also highlights a need for more vigilance on the part of building owners and even visitors to keep an eye out for safety.

"We do have an inspection list, but it's the buildings that we know of," says Larry Medina, deputy chief-fire marshal of the City of Bend Fire Department. "Our list is generated from what we've inspected." In the interest of safety, Medina says the department prioritizes buildings where people sleep, such as hotels and motels, tapping the City of Bend's voluntary business registration system to help.

Business owners hoping to open a venue have to jump through a number of safety hoops before they're given a certificate of occupancy. That starts with working with City of Bend building officials to plan for sprinklers, alarms and adequate egress lighting and exit points. State law requires operators with buildings over 4,000 square feet to work with a registered architect to draw up plans. After receiving that certificate, the Bend Fire department handles regular safety inspections. It can be a confusing process, says Volcanic Theatre Pub's Derek Sitter, but he had help.

"My partner was an architect, so he already knew all the city officials," says Sitter. "He knew exactly what needed to be done. It didn't make the process any quicker, but it did make the process a lot easier."

So what's the first thing to do when you enter a venue as a visitor? In the interest of safety, "Look for an exit," says Staten—and there should definitely be two of them. "People don't practice this stuff very often," he says.

"It's not just fire that I think about," says Sitter. "Somebody walks through the door with a gun, how am I going to get them out? You have to have a plan, because (if something happened) that's something that I as an owner, that would be tough to live with."

Meanwhile, local artists are drawing a line between the devaluation of artists' work and a lack of affordable housing, a combo forcing people to make tough decisions about where to live. Several artists have spoken out about the challenges nationwide and locally.

One Bend artist, who spoke to the Source Weekly on the condition of anonymity, says she lives in a camper in a Bend backyard to make ends meet.

"I think if the fire marshal and the City knew how some of us live, they would shut us down. With the cold temperatures, I have been a little scared about a fire in my home," she says. "The Oakland fire made it all too real. It got down to 16 last night (maybe lower), so my heater was going all night, which I don't usually do, but had to. However, I can't afford to live in this community and do what I do if I don't live how I live."

Medina says he's dealt with similar situations of people living in buildings not meant to be permanent dwellings. "In some cases it's the economic, and sometimes it's them not having the right help," says Medina. In the wake of the Ghost Ship fire, everyone's focusing on code violations and unsafe conditions, Medina says, but that doesn't always solve the issues. "If you push them out they just end up somewhere else."

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