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Our View: 'Catastrophic fire' provides somber reminders

From the editorial: "There are far safer alternatives than empty buildings for those looking to get in out of the cold."

Esmond Building
Ice covers a wall of the Esmond Building, formerly home to the Seaway Hotel, on Jan. 11, 2022, the day after a fire gutted the structure.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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Duluth’s Fire Department and Life Safety Division took precautions. At the former Seaway Hotel in Lincoln Park, abandoned and awaiting demolition, they not only boarded up windows and doors, they secured possible points of entry, according to Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj. They additionally made sure fire escapes were secure and inaccessibly up off the ground. And they responded to calls of trespass.

The condemned, 109-year-old building simply wasn’t safe anymore, even when those looking to get inside were understandably just trying to escape the bitter cold.

Nonetheless, “People do still find ways to get in, kind of no matter what we do,” the chief acknowledged. And at the Seaway, also known as the Esmond Building, “We’ve had squatting issues.”

Firefighters responded to two small blazes started by intruders. Then, last week, a much larger fire — a “catastrophic fire,” in Krizaj’s words — destroyed the building while also imperiling the lives of firefighters called to battle the blaze; it also threatened to burn far more in Duluth’s trendy Lincoln Park Craft District.

Duluth can be relieved no lives were lost, no one was injured, and no other structures were damaged in the Jan. 10 fire. We also can be reminded by the sheets of icicles left clinging to the Esmond’s brick facade that “vacant buildings can, and often do, attract trouble,” as a News Tribune investigation reported earlier this month.

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“Vacant buildings are a problem because critters of all kinds, including humans, can find their way into them, whether that's just kids being kids or people who are desperate to find shelter,” Jeff Corey, executive director of One Roof, a housing nonprofit, said in that Jan. 8 story.

There are 174 vacant buildings in Duluth, according to Krizaj. Not all are destined for demolition. Some are being rehabbed or are empty until they’re sold. But all are potential targets for intruders hellbent on wrongdoing or interested in starting small fires out of the icy winds to stay warm, each small fire with the potential to easily get out of control.

“We continue to monitor all (vacant building). It’s a process. … We do keep tabs,” Krizaj told reporters the afternoon of the Esmond blaze. “We work with property owners. We have our life safety staff inspect any time we get a tip or a complaint that people are in there. One of our inspectors will go look at it and notify the property owner that it needs to be secured. If we have something that happens after hours, sometimes our crews, one of our truck companies, will go and help board it up. But normally we work with some commercial companies to not just put boards up but to actually secure the building as best that we can.”

The city also has started requiring vacant buildings be registered, with owners charged an escalating fee for every year the structure remains listed. The city isn’t as interested in making money off the fees — most top out at only about $5,000 — as it is in enticing property owners to responsibly take care of their structures.

There are far safer alternatives than empty buildings for those looking to get in out of the cold, Krizaj, the Duluth Housing and Redevelopment Authority, homeless advocates, and others have pointed out, especially this cold winter. Those smarter, safer options include the emergency shelter and additional services offered by the Chum Center in Duluth (chumduluth.org, 218-727-2391). They also include the warming center at the Rainbow Center at Tri-Towers, 222 N. Second Ave. E., which is soon to be replaced by a warming center inside the Lincoln Park Community Center, 2014 W. Third St. The new facility is scheduled to open Feb. 1.

“This is a really dangerous thing for us to have people in vacant buildings trying to stay warm,” Krizaj said. “We understand it’s brutal … out there, and it’s dangerous out there. But we really really want the community to look for safer resources that are available as opposed to going into a vacant building and trying to stay warm.”

Last week’s two-alam Esmond fire, battled with four ladder trucks from the Duluth and Superior fire departments, was only the latest reminder of the need for Duluth to more diligently keep tabs on empty structures, to more quickly tear down abandoned buildings, to more aggressively pursue and arrest copper thieves and others who break into empty structures, and to keep working with those experiencing homelessness so they make safer, smarter decisions about staying warm.

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