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Seattle council passes law allowing fire chief to have abandoned buildings demolished

New ordinance allows the fire chief to declare a building a “public nuisance” and have a structure torn down

By David Kroman
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — On the same day a fire in a vacant building killed one person and injured three others, the Seattle City Council approved new rules to expedite the condemnation of abandoned and unsafe structures.

The timing was an unfortunate coincidence; the council has been considering the new rules for more than a month.

But Councilmember Bob Kettle said it highlighted the need to empower the Seattle Fire Department to act unilaterally to secure and even destroy unsafe buildings.

“We need to pass this legislation to create the safety for our firefighters, for our neighbors and also as part of our attempt to address the permissive environment that underlies our public safety challenges that we face here in the city,” Kettle said.

The new law, proposed by Mayor Bruce Harrell and passed unanimously by the council Tuesday, gives new authority to the chief of SFD — currently Harold Scoggins — to declare a building a “public nuisance.” Instead of the lengthy process currently in place, in which city officials go through the Department of Construction and Inspections, the chief could choose to fence off, reinforce or tear down a building.

Harrell proposed the new law as the city sees an increasing number of fires and deaths in vacant buildings. In 2023, emergency crews responded to 130 fires in vacant buildings in Seattle, an increase from 91 the year before and 77 the year before that. Three people died last year.

With an increase in abandoned building fires Mayor Bruce Harrell introduced legislation removing derelict, dangerous buildings

Some fires haven’t resulted in deaths, but have elicited enormous response from the department and even closed down whole arterial roads, as when a building on Madison caught fire last year.

The city keeps tabs on about 300 vacant buildings. Of those, 42 have been deemed dangerous — meaning crews have been dispatched to them multiple times or there’s a history of fire or repeated unsafe activity.

The Roosevelt neighborhood building that caught fire Tuesday had also caught fire May 8. Then, people were displaced from 26 units after a fire — which was contained to one apartment — damaged the building’s water pipes. Investigators determined it was accidental and likely caused by faulty electrical wiring or overheated battery chargers. No one was hurt in that incident.

This time, firefighters raised ladders and rescued one person by carrying them out of a fourth-floor window. They also escorted two others down a stairway, and another escaped on their own.

A woman died at the scene, and a seriously injured man was taken to Harborview Medical Center. Another man and a woman had minor injuries, Seattle Fire Department spokesperson David Cuerpo said. The Fire Department is investigating what caused the blaze.

The department’s preference is to work with property owners to secure a vacant building. But if that fails, the city could put a lien on the home and hold the owner financially responsible for any work to secure it or tear it down.

The bill was deemed emergency legislation, meaning it needed a supermajority of votes from the council to pass and goes into effect immediately.

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