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Death toll from Oakland fire akin to 'a third-world country,' Utah fire official says

SALT LAKE CITY — As the death toll rises from the fire that gutted Oakland's "Ghost Ship" warehouse, Utah life-safety officials say enforcement of building, health and zoning codes help prevent tragedies.

But this supposes people apply for proper permits and government agencies charged with regulating everything from health codes to zoning regulation are responsive to complaints.

Some 36 people are believed dead in the California warehouse fire, which ripped through the two-story structure Friday. The warehouse served as living and working space for a number of artists, and on the night of the fire was hosting a dance party. Press accounts of the fire say neither were permitted uses.

Unified Fire Authority Fire Marshall Brad Larson said older structures in inner cities pose difficult challenges for regulators. Even so, such a high number of casualties in the Oakland fire is out of the norm in the nation's urban areas.

"Usually you hear about this in a third-world country. This is really unusual," he said.

Larson cautioned against drawing conclusions about inspections or regulatory practices until investigations are completed. However, he said he has worked with multiple agencies in Utah over his 30-year career and in his experience,"Utah's pretty aggressive in code enforcement."

Depending upon whether a structure is new construction or an existing building, checks can occur among multiple agencies, including city planning and zoning departments, fire departments and health departments.

The actions can range from a simple visit to a building to check out a complaint to closing down a building if conditions warrant, which Larson said is rare.

Most construction in Utah is newer and complaints are usually investigated as quickly as possible, so it is unlikely a similar event would occur in Utah, he said.

But local fire agencies, building inspectors and health officials face the ongoing challenge of people squatting in abandoned houses and buildings — particularly during cold weather. Risks of fire and exposure are great, so officials work with owners and landlords to ensure abandoned buildings and homes are boarded up to discourage people from occupying them,

When conditions warrant, occupied structures are also closed because of "compelling health problems," said Dale Keller, director of the Salt Lake County Health Department's Bureau of Environmental Health.

"On any given month, we probably close 30 properties, maybe 40 properties," he said.

Some have been highly contaminated from the production of methamphetamines or the storage of meth-making materials. Others are unfit for habitation because of filth.

"You know that TV show, 'Hoarders?' We see that. We have those cases on any given day," he said.

While he's never encountered anything of the scale of the "Ghost Ship" warehouse, he's found people living in many places not meant for habitation — culverts under interstates, storage units, sophisticated lean-to dwellings and tents pitched along the Jordan River and more recently, along 500 West.

Regulators try to work with people to ensure they can keep their belongings and refer them to shelters or other services that can assist them, Keller said.

But regulation does not ensure that people won't cut corners. Larson said he suspects that one person moved into the "Ghost Ship" to work on art and then moved in, given the dearth of affordable housing in the Bay area. Others followed.

"It sounds to me like one of those things that just morphs," he said