Why did the Weil Arcade burn so quickly in downtown Hillsboro?
A lack of modern fire suppression systems — and a forgotten alcove of stored items — allowed a devastating fire to spread rapidly through a historic downtown building in Hillsboro on Jan. 2, according to Hillsboro fire officials.
The Weil Arcade commercial building was constructed in 1919, long before there was such a thing as fire code standards. It never underwent the kind of renovations that would trigger an update of its fire safety compliance, officials say.
"When it comes to the building codes and when it triggers things to be brought up to current code standards, it depends on the extent of the renovations, we call it tenant improvements, that are being done to the structure," said Hillsboro Fire Marshal Martin Stapleton. "In the Weil Arcade, there wasn't any major improvements that would trigger it being updated to the current code."
As such, the building was without any fire suppression or monitoring systems, which allowed the fire to burn uninhibited throughout the historic structure until firefighters arrived on scene to attack the flames.
Even when they got there, other conditions made battling the blaze difficult.
The fire that broke out on News Year's weekend was not started by negligence on the part of the building's owner or tenants who occupied the space. Instead, Hillsboro police say it was started by an arsonist, Roel Leon, 31, who is also known as Rolanda Leon, according to court documents. Leon was indicted on 21 total charges stemming from the incident.
Charges facing Leon include first-degree arson, criminal mischief, and second-degree murder — a charge which was added after human remains were found inside the wreckage more than a month after the fire. Police say the man died of smoke inhalation. He's not thought to be connected with any of the businesses that operated in the complex that spanned Main Street.
Adding to the conditions that made it difficult to contain the fire was what Stapleton called a "forgotten space" between the Weil Arcade's first and second floors. Hillsboro Fire Rescue officials only became aware of it after the blaze was already done burning, after owner Jay Weil came into the precinct with old schematics for the building.
They revealed a large void that was about six feet tall and ran the entire length of the building. It was full of old magazines, flyers and other products stored for decades from when the Weil Arcade was a department store — its initial use.
All of that paper served as extra fuel for the fire, Stapleton said.
"Once fire penetrated that void space, most of us had no idea that that's where the fire was just spreading throughout the whole structure," he said. "Then, as it's piercing through the second floor there, we've got a huge fuel load. The heat and the fire are intensifying. We had fire running that building, that's why there was so much smoke generating. And it wasn't until that punched through the roof and that collapsed that we really started to see a lot of the fire."
Stapleton recalled that, the night of the fire, crews tried to get up the stairwell to check for fire spread and see where so much of the heat and smoke was coming from. Firefighters couldn't make it up to the second floor because the heat was so intense.
They now know it was because of this forgotten storage space, which further allowed the fire to spread unhindered throughout the entire main structure.
"They only got a few steps up because the intensity of that heat was too great," Stapleton said. "You have a hidden room that basically runs the whole length of the building, just full of free-burning fire, consuming the products that used to be in that old store."
Any fire updates?
While the building never had modern sprinkler systems installed, and it never underwent the sort of extensive renovations that trigger an updated compliance with current fire codes, officials say there have still been cases where the building owners made changes — or where nearby businesses were required to make changes.
Stapleton, who says he extensively researched the history of the Weil Arcade during his investigation of the fire, noted two instances.
The first was the addition of a strip in the back in the 1970s, running perpendicular from East Main Street to Lincoln Street, which housed The Chapel Downtown. Another building was added onto the side of the main Weil Arcade structure sometime in the 1980s, which housed the jiu-jitsu gym. Neither of these additions qualified as the kind of renovations to the main structure that would have triggered a code review, Stapleton said.
The second was installing a fire escape on an adjacent building, which led into the Weil Arcade's corridor so as to avoid a dead end for occupants of the law office next door.
"Dead-end corridors are very bad, because if you get caught back there, there is nowhere else to go," Stapleton said. "That's one of the reasons why … the assistant fire marshal at that time had Jay (Weil) put that in there."
Stapleton also noted that certain kinds of businesses can be required to have their own fire safety systems in place, without triggering a fire review of the entire structure. For instance, when a restaurant operated next to the space years ago, it was required to install ovens with fire suppression hoods, as well as adhere to proper grease storage standards outlined in the fire code.
But short of drastic tenant improvements, there was never any requirement that the Weil Arcade install modern fire suppression systems.
Can't force it
This is part of the reality of old buildings and how they fit into the modern fire code. In all cases, Oregon laws and municipal regulations state that, if a building was constructed prior to the enactment of the code, they do not have to adhere to fire suppression system standards and other parts of the Oregon fire code.
Stapleton said that Hillsboro Fire & Rescue "doesn't have a leg to stand on" when it comes to enforcing modern fire standards to historic buildings.
"When it comes to these older buildings and wanting them brought up to code … we can't force someone to spend their money if they're not doing an improvement," Stapleton said. "The cost is quite high if you're going to put a fire alarm system, a monitored system or a sprinkler system retrofitted in an old building."
Weil could not be reached for comment in time for this report Friday, May 20.
But the safety of old buildings in downtown Hillsboro is still fresh on everyone's minds following the destruction of the Weil Arcade. Business owners objected to a planned redevelopment of the former U.S. Bank building — just a few blocks from the site of the fire — back in March over perceived failings in its fire safety standards.
Hillsboro Planning Department staff were clear that the development, which seeks to turn the former bank into a restaurant hub, adhered to all fire safety requirements. But business owners cited the devastation of the Weil Arcade as a key reason why fire safety standards are chief among their concerns.
But it's precisely when redevelopment comes to old buildings that newer fire standards can apply. Short of that, fire officials say there isn't much they can do. Hillsboro's municipal code doesn't provide for any kind of fire safety requirements on historic buildings that aren't making the kind of extensive tenant improvements that normally trigger an update.
"There is no code path for us," Stapleton said. "There's no way for us to say, 'Hey, we don't think your building is safe, you need to bring it up to current code,' (when) you're not doing anything like remodels or tenant improvements."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.