To Winlock residents and city officials who had been inside the Winlock Haunted Hostel, Hotel and B&B in recent years, the fire that engulfed the building on Nov. 8 was tragic and terrifying, but hardly surprising.
Photos taken by now-displaced Haunted Hostel residents circulated online in the days after the blaze, showing improperly-placed extension cords, unsanitary conditions in public areas and some visible damage to walls, floors and ceilings.
In the weeks that followed, Winlock Mayor Brandon Svenson said he fielded questions from upset constituents asking if the city knew about the dilapidated conditions within the Haunted Hostel and, if it did, why didn’t the city do anything to fix the problem before a disaster happened?
Svenson told a Chronicle reporter last week he has been worried about the building collapsing or catching fire for years.
“We know that (the Haunted Hostel) wasn’t what it should be and we were working on legally taking care of this,” Svenson said last week.
Sitting at his desk in Winlock City Hall while crews razed what remained of the charred building a few blocks away, Svenson flipped through a thick folder containing all the reports and documentation the City of Winlock has collected on the Haunted Hostel since Svenson became mayor in 2020.
Spread out across Svenson’s desk, the documents form a timeline of the city’s strained relationship with the Haunted Hostel’s owner, Jesse Martin, and the city’s attempts to have the historic building properly inspected and either brought up to code or shut down.
The Chronicle was unable to reach Martin for comment.
Svenson became personally aware of possible problems with the Haunted Hostel in early 2020, when Martin reportedly contacted the city about updating his business license. While Martin has owned the property since 2014, the only business license Martin had on file with the city for the Haunted Hostel was submitted in 2016, which only allowed for two to three apartment units upstairs, according to Svenson.
As the owner of a neighboring building on Southeast Front Street, Svenson told The Chronicle he had seen up to 20 people at the Haunted Hostel at a time — well above the number of residents Martin’s business license allowed.
The City of Winlock attempted to conduct a full inspection of the building in April 2020, but Martin only allowed inspectors on the first floor of the building, according to a formal statement from the City of Winlock emailed to The Chronicle on Wednesday.
On April 27, 2020, then-Winlock Fire Chief Dan Mahoney completed a safety inspection of the first floor of the Haunted Hostel.
During that inspection, Mahoney documented significant safety hazards within the building, including obstructed exits and a lack of operational exit signs, adequate locks and numbering on the doors, functioning fire extinguishers, emergency lighting, fire alarms and a fire and disaster safety plan.
Regarding that safety plan, Mahoney noted the building “should have one quarter (number) of residents.”
“His report was concerning, to say the least,” said Svenson. “The city’s primary concerns at the time of inspection were that the building was being used for residential occupancy, rather than commercial use,” per the city’s written statement.
A reevaluation completed May 4 showed Martin was working on addressing some of the specific fire safety issues, such as the route blockage and lack of fire extinguishers, that Mahoney identified in his initial inspection.
On June 8, after receiving both fire inspection reports from Mahoney, Winlock City Engineer Luke W. Moerke toured the building on behalf of consulting firm Exodus Engineering Inc. to investigate potential hazards associated with the south wall of the building.
“Concerns of structural stability and a possible change of occupancy were raised,” wrote Moerke in his report dated June 30.
Moerke’s primary concern with the structural safety of the building stemmed from the fact that the building was historically much larger. City staff did some research and uncovered a digital map of the property created by Lewis County in 2003, which showed the Haunted Hostel was once connected to another building by a party wall.
“The modifications that happened, because of fire, demo or whatever the actual history of the building is, resulted in a severely modified structure,” wrote Moerke. “This modified structure should have been evaluated by a licensed engineer, based on the change in load resisting elements.”
Moerke advised that, based on his preliminary evaluation, that a full-depth analysis of the building’s load-bearing system would “most certainly” reveal the need for “some significant modifications to the existing structure for life safety.”
Need for Structural Engineer Evaluation
About a week after receiving Moerke’s report, the Winlock city attorney sent Martin a letter informing him that, because of the issues laid out in Moerke’s report, Martin was in violation of a city ordinance “which prohibits your property from being in such condition due to the health and safety factors involved.”
To avoid legal action, the attorney advised Martin he would need to obtain a determination by a state-licensed structural engineer that the building was “structurally sound, compliant with all applicable building codes, safe to occupy and fit for human habitation,” according to the letter. If the building wasn’t up to that standard, Martin would have 30 days from the time the city received the engineer’s report to bring the building into compliance.
That structural engineer evaluation never occurred.
On Aug. 7, 2021, the city received a call from Martin’s attorney informing officials that an inspection by a structural engineer hadn’t happened yet and that Martin intended to file a lawsuit against the city.
Martin did allow Mahoney and Winlock Community Development Director Robert Webster, who also acts as a code enforcement officer, to accompany him into the building’s basement on Aug. 27.
“The owner continued to refuse access to the second floor of the building,” according to the City of Winlock’s statement to The Chronicle.
“As the chief and I, along with Mr. Martin entered the basement, we were overwhelmed with a strong odor,” wrote Webster in his inspection report, noting trash and debris littering the ground. He specifically noted finding “areas where the foundation walls are cracked from floor to ceiling,” “cracks in walls and electrical wires and extension cords (that) ran through the basement area” posing “a huge fire and life safety issue.”
Of particular concern was the foundational wall on the southwest side of the building, which wasn’t visibly cracked but was separating from the second story of the building, creating what Webster said “could eventually become a major structural issue.”
On Nov. 4, 2021, having yet to receive notice that a structural engineer had inspected the building, the City of Winlock sent Martin a notice declaring the Winlock Haunted Hostel a dangerous building and ordering Martin “to abate said nuisance within 14 days upon receipt of the notice.”
Along with the notice, the City of Winlock sent Martin a copy of the International Code Council’s uniform code for the abatement of dangerous buildings, which details the legal steps for resolving the building’s hazards.
That same day, Martin’s lawsuit against the City of Winlock was filed in Lewis County Superior Court.
In the lawsuit, Martin accused the City of Winlock of performing “negligent earthwork” in a vacant lot adjacent to the Haunted Hostel that “was so reckless that it caused the lateral and subjacent failure of (the property) and caused severe structural damage to (the) building.”
That damage allegedly included the cracked foundation and separated brick wall Webster noted in the basement.
“The city thereafter determined that the damage to the building made it unsafe to use without substantial structural repair,” wrote Martin’s attorney in the complaint filed in Lewis County Superior Court on Nov. 4, “Therefore, the city has caused damage to the plaintiff’s building that has resulted in a substantial or total loss of the fair market value to the building.”
Svenson confirmed to The Chronicle that the City of Winlock did do earthwork on the property adjacent to the Haunted Hostel in the summer of 2018, specifically to fill the empty basement of a building on the property that had burned down.
In his August report, Webster noted the cause of the damage to the foundation and basement floor was “most likely … some bad soil underneath in certain areas,” but stated he considered Martin’s claim that the city’s work on the adjacent property caused the building to crack were “unfounded in my professional opinion.”
In its reply to Webster’s complaint, the City of Winlock acknowledged it did do grading work on the property adjacent to the Haunted Hostel but denied all of Webster’s claims regarding damage to the Haunted Hostel.
“The city contested the baseless claims asserted by the owner, and counter-sued the owner for an order of abatement,” wrote the city in a statement to The Chronicle on Wednesday. An abatement would have forced the Winlock Haunted Hostel to shut down.
“Again, the property owner refused to take responsibility for the crack in the basement and attempted to deflect blame on the city for his neglect of his privately-owned building,” the city wrote. “The city was in the process of seeking a judgment against the owner, and for a writ of abatement. However, the city had still not been able to inspect the upper floor, as the owner had refused access to the upper floor at every turn.”
“We were tied up in legal purgatory,” said Svenson. “Our hands were actually tied quite a bit on this.”
A judge approved an order on July 13, 2022, forcing Martin to allow an inspection of the entire premises — including the second floor — by the city’s “expert witnesses” ahead of trial. A few days later, on July 27, they completed an inspection to use as evidence in trial.
“The city was in the process of preparing its motion for a judgment and writ of abatement, but the motion could not be finalized until it received final reports from all expert witnesses present during the July 2022 inspection,” said the City of Winlock in its written statement to The Chronicle.
The City of Winlock’s goal at that point was not to issue Martin citations or to fine him for failing to bring the building up to code, said Svenson: the goal was to shut the operation down completely.
“We were getting close, finally,” Svenson said.
Fire and Aftermath
Before the reports from that July inspection could be finalized, the building caught fire.
Fire crews responded to the fire at approximately 7:25 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 8, at which time all of the building’s human occupants had evacuated the building.
Except for minor injuries sustained by a firefighter in a fall, and reports that some cats were unaccounted for, no injuries were reported in what became a massive blaze in downtown Winlock.
The Lewis County Public Utility District cut power to Winlock residents for several hours during the fire response when the fire threatened a power pole. Flames ultimately melted through some telephone wires, causing internet and cell phone data issues that some Winlock residents were still feeling weeks after the fire was extinguished.
At this time, the cause of the fire is unknown.
Lewis County Fire District 15 Chief Rich Underdahl said he is fairly certain that the fire started on the second floor on the south/southwestern side of the building, but because the building was too unstable for the fire inspector to go inside after the blaze, Underdahl said he expects the cause of the fire to remain a mystery. He was still waiting for the fire investigator’s finished report as of Wednesday morning.
The City of Winlock, with aid from other local agencies, quickly blocked off the streets around what remained of the Haunted Hostel after the fire due to concerns about the building collapsing.
Three Kings LLC began demolishing the structure on Nov. 18 and had completely razed the building as of Wednesday morning.
Svenson said the demolition was necessary due to safety and transportation issues the definitively-unstable building caused in downtown Winlock, but because Martin did not have insurance on the building, the $198,000 cost of the demolition fell on the City of Winlock.
The lawsuit was still active as of Wednesday.
Svenson said the city will most likely put a lien on the property, meaning the city claims the property as collateral to satisfy Martin’s debt, but the city is unlikely to recoup the full cost of the demolition.
“It’s a no-win situation,” Svenson said.
Between 26 and 50 people were displaced by the fire, according to Lewis County Emergency Management. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army offered emergency resources to the displaced Haunted Hostel residents immediately after the fire, and the Winlock community has banded together to gather donations and provide what aid they could; but a lack of affordable rental property in Lewis County has left many in an uncertain situation.
“There’s nowhere to rent here, no other hostels here in that price range,” Lewis County Emergency Management Deputy Director Ross McDowell previously told The Chronicle. “Everything is a very big question mark right now.”