By Mahlon Meyer
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Video by Joseph Lachman
On the night of Dec. 8, Tanya Woo was out with other volunteers assisting the unhoused population and trying to prevent fires in the Chinatown-International District (CID). They kept a watch on vacant buildings. They handed out warm clothes and heating packs—so that those experiencing homelessness could stay warm during a freezing night—without having to light fires.
So it was with a sense of dismay that she was alerted to a fire that was occurring at around 7 p.m.—this time, at her own family’s property—the Louisa Hotel. In fact, the hotel had been gutted once by fire before—in 2013.
When Woo arrived on the scene, what she saw only confirmed what she has been fighting for for years, on the streets and in a recent election campaign.
“We’ve got to get people inside, we’ve got to get them housed, because it does affect things,” she said in an interview.
A deadly impact
The impact is enormous. That night, several men who apparently started the fire in a doorway outside the Louisa Hotel, fled, leaving a third man lying in the street, paralyzed and unconscious after an overdose. Meanwhile, the fire burned unabated until a sprinkler doused a flaming box with torrents of water.
“The solution,” she said, “is to house everybody.”
According to Woo, there are several such fires each year in the CID, ones that are started by people trying to stay warm and spread to adjacent buildings.
“Every year, we see a whole bunch of fires next to historic residential and other buildings,” she said.
The CID, with its concentration of shelters and social services, seems especially vulnerable to such fires.
According to Tien Ha, a local entrepreneur, a fire occurred at his vacant building on the 1,000 block of South King Street on July 20.
In 2021, a fire threatened the Tsue Chong building, roaring up from a dumpster and consuming several trees.
In 2020, the Eng Suey Sun Plaza building burned down at a $2.5 million loss. The structure had housed 11 businesses, including the Eng Family Association, Kin On’s home care service, a bakery, a chiropractor, an accounting firm, a law firm, a dance academy, and others.
The Seattle Fire Department (SFD) was unable to provide statistics for building fires associated with people living outside trying to keep warm, cook or engage in other such activities.
Meanwhile, outside of the CID, fires have swept through abandoned buildings, including one that consumed the former Jumbo restaurant last month.
A vulnerable neighborhood
Nor is it clear if these problems occur in other parts of the city with the same regularity.
“Are these building fires happening in North Seattle, in other parts of the city? I know it happens along Rainier, but with all these shelter services in our area, when the services are full, people end up staying in Chinatown. How do we get people housed? How do we give them services so these fires aren’t happening?” said Woo
A city on fire
Still, the building fires are merely one part of a much larger problem. There were 772 fires in encampments so far this year, to which the SFD responded.
If you count all fires related to activities undertaken by people living outdoors—to stay warm or cook or otherwise—the number is double.
From Jan. 1 to Dec. 12, the fire department tackled 1,267 “encampment-related fires,” according to David Cuerpo, public information officer for the SFD. This compares to 1,459 for the same period last year.
“These totals include encampment fires, illegal burns, and rubbish fires, but do not include RV fires. While some of these incidents are ruled as ‘accidental’ and attributed to cooking or warming fires getting out of control, the cause for many is ruled undetermined due to multiple possible ignition points. We also have some that are ruled as intentionally set,” he said in an email.
Absent outreach workers?
Exacerbating the problem, is that many shelters do not take nighttime referrals.
“We call around and spend hours on the phone, but we can’t get people in,” said Woo.
Moreover, according to other night patrol volunteers, outreach workers from nearby shelters do not work at night.
“We need outreach workers in the evening to house people,” said Woo.
During the Dec. 8 fire, it was an instructor at the adjacent yoga studio, on the ground floor of the Louisa Hotel, who first noticed the fire. He later told a police officer arriving at the scene that he and his colleagues had noticed a large orange ball of fire.
Video by Joseph Lachman
When he emerged into the street, videoing the proceedings with his phone, smoke billowed around him. He and the police officer approached the man lying on the street, unconscious from the overdose, while the two men who apparently started the fire ran off.
Shortly thereafter, the fire department showed up, about the same time Woo appeared.
Another problem for the CID, is that many of its buildings are either uninsured or uninsurable. After Woo and her family remodeled the Louisa Hotel, they were able to get insurance—but at a very high price.
Other building owners are not as lucky.
The Eng family told the Asian Weekly it did not have enough money to cover its losses when its building burned down in 2020.
Meanwhile, abandoned buildings are uninsurable. And insurance for new construction is astronomical, said Woo.
“Getting insurance in this neighborhood is a really complicated topic,” she said. “You could probably write another article about that, but it’s something that we’ve been asking for help with from the city. We all have liability insurance but getting the building insurance is tough.”
No major damage–this time
In the case of the Louisa Hotel, compared with 10 years ago when a fire caved in part of the roof, there was, indeed, ample protection from the flames. An exterior sprinkler went off after the sensing wax inside melted from the heat. What followed were the torrential sheets of water flooding the box that had been set alight—and sending the occupants of the doorway scattering.
While nothing was damaged in the building, the sprinkler company did not arrive until much later that night, to turn off the sprinkler.
All 80-some residents of the apartments in the building were forced out onto the streets in the dead of winter by the ringing klaxon of the alarm bell.
Businesses emptied. Yoga classes were canceled for the night. Eventually, according to witnesses, the man who had overdosed got up and walked away.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.