Inauspicious Time For Needles Motel Fire Following Annexation

The America’s Best Value Inn, located directly across the street from County Fire Station 32 in Needles, underwent extensive damage in a fire that began Saturday morning.
Before it was doused, the conflagration persisted for at least an-hour-and-a-half and attracted a response from six fire stations, including four from across the river in Arizona.
A consistent report from four eyewitnesses was that the three-man team at County Fire Station 32 did not respond to the fire until after a unit from Arizona, which came from 12 miles away, was on the scene, an indication that county fire station personnel did not respond to the fire until 25 minutes after it had broken out.
Assistant San Bernardino County Fire Chief Tom Marshall, who was not on duty at the time of the fire and did not respond to it, told the Sentinel the crew at Fire Station 32 responded to the blaze within three minutes of being contacted. That version of events was contradicted by four eyewitnesses, including the U.S. Post Office worker who reported the fire to the fire crew at Station 32 by knocking on the front door of the firehouse to alert the firefighters to the fire.
There were a number of conflicting reports from witnesses and officials, several elements of which could not be reconciled.
Two reliable witnesses on the scene say the fire had become apparent some time after 8 a.m. and before 8:05 a.m. when flames were visible through the roof at the motel, located at the east Broadway offramp of I-40, at the intersection of I-40 and Highway 95 south, across the street from new county fire station.
There is no dispute that the blaze began on the second floor, most probably in room 214, which is at about the middle of the east wing of the structure.
According to a news account by Robin Richards of the Needles Desert Star, the fire was noted by a passing postal worker a few minutes after 8 a.m., which is consistent in most of its aspect with what an individual close to the postal worker told the Sentinel. Further, according to the Star account, “within five minutes responders were pouring water on the flames.”
This was at a variance with the accounts provided by several witnesses at or near the scene, including the postal worker.
The source close to the postal worker said he drives past the motel on his daily sojourn to work, and on Saturday he was on his way to work around 8:15 a.m. when he saw smoke and flames coming out of the roof of the motel. He used his cell phone to take a picture of the burning motel. At that point, he maneuvered his vehicle into the fire station parking lot to report the fire or see if the personnel at the fire station knew about the fire. He said he pounded at the fire station door. The fireman answering the door was on his cell phone, he said. He asked the fireman if he knew that the motel right across the street was on fire. The fireman said “It is?” but did not come out of the station to look at the fire, according to the postman.
The postal worker said he remained outside the fire station for a while to see if there would be any response. He said he waited until 8:25 a.m. and when there was no response by that time he left because he had to be at work by 8:30 a.m.
A second witness, identified as Marianne Jones, made multiple attempts to call 911, but could not get through.
A third witness located by the Sentinel standing among what appeared to be a group of either guests or residents of the hotel who were there while firefighting efforts were yet ongoing said that none of them had seen anything of note with regard to the ignition of the fire.
A fourth witness, believed to be the hotel’s janitor who lived at the hotel with his wife, a maid at the hotel, was heard to remark “I hope I turned everything off.”
A fifth witness, also a resident of the hotel, claimed that the first fire engine to respond was from a fire station in Arizona that did not arrive at the hotel until 20 minutes after the fire broke out. He said it took nearly ten minutes for that crew to set up and begin applying water to the fire.
A sixth witness, an Asian male believed to be affiliated with the ownership of the hotel and involved in its operation, said he saw the fire start but declined further comment.
A seventh witness, also a resident or guest, said the San Bernardino Fire Department arrived about 20 minutes after the fire ignited. He said he had walked from the hotel to the nearby Mobil gas station, commented on the fire and was told that the hotel custodian/handyman was in the station buying beer because he had the shakes and that the handyman was working in the room where the fire ignited.
An eighth witness, an evacuated occupant of the hotel said that the source of the ignition was at room 214, due to a ceiling fan malfunction. “The employees were in the bathroom working on the fan last night and again this morning,” he said. “When someone turned the fan on, it went ‘bang’ and the fire started. There was an employee who attempted to put out the fire with a handheld fire extinguisher.”
An ninth witness said he believed the San Bernardino County Fire Department was on the scene five minutes after the fire had grown to a detectable level. He claimed that the county fire fighters saw the smoke from the nearby fire house.
There was confusion among the witnesses as to both response time and the order in which the differing engines, several from Arizona fire agencies, arrived on the scene. This lack of clarity was due to an inability of many of the witnesses to identify or discern the difference between the various responding agencies. All told, crews from Mohave Valley, Bullhead City, Fort Mojave, Lake Havasu City as well as San Bernardino County Fire, including Needles and Twentynine Palms units, responded.
Adding to the uncertainty, the first responders and some of their vehicles were obscured by smoke in the parking lot of the hotel.
Needles City Manager Rick Daniels arrived at the scene of the fire and was seen consoling the Asian man who resided at the end of the hotel’s second floor who is believed to be involved with the ownership and management of the hotel. A witness also said that the fire spread from room 214 through the attic to room 217 where this Asian man lived and he was forced out before he could grab his computer or personal effects.
The size of the blaze required an upgrade to a second alarm fire, with additional resources responding, including two ladder trucks, one from Bullhead City and one from Lake Havasu City.
An ambulance from Fort Mojave Mesa and Needles, Baker Ambulance Service arrived, and the property manager at the hotel was evacuated by Baker to the hospital for treatment for smoke inhalation. One report to the Sentinel was that after the fire began with the ceiling fan, an effort by the hotel manager and the custodian to bring the fire under control followed, including using several fire extinguishers. The flames had advanced into the attic. This version of events partially explains the delay in phoning the fire department and perhaps the property manager’s smoke inhalation. The ceiling fans are standard accoutrement in the America’s Best Value Inn chain, which are extended living motels with kitchenettes.
When the Sentinel arrived at the motel parking lot at 9:20, the sheriff’s department had the highway around the motel blocked. When a deputy was asked what time the fire began, the Sentinel was told “around 8:30.”
After the Sentinel began gathering information and taking witness statements, one of its reporters was approached by the motel custodian, who attempted to seize the reporter’s notebook. Shortly thereafter, the reporter was told to leave the premises.
Even after the fire was brought under control, there remained a degree of confusion about the extent of the damage to the motel. According to a public statement, the fire wreaked $750,000 worth of damage, destroying the roof, inflicting smoke and water damage on 12 upstairs units and water damage to eleven units downstairs. One source, however, told the Sentinel the entire interior of the second floor is gutted, making the motel a total loss.
The fire and the reports that the local fire company did not respond to it with alacrity carries with it a wider implication, given that within the last two years, Needles and three other county cities have already or are in the process of dissolving their municipal fire departments and annexing into a county fire district, an arrangement by which those communities now have, or will have, their fire safety service provided, and their local fire stations manned, by the county fire department. In all those cases that have occurred – in San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms and in Needles – and in the case that is yet ongoing – in the City of Upland and its outlying sphere of influence area San Antonio Heights – those annexations have entailed the creation of an assessment district, meaning that residents in those areas are now paying a $130 to $150 per year tax, called a parcel fee, they were not previously forking out for fire protection service. Thus, the perception of a tardy response in Needles to a fire that was literally a stone’s throw from a county fire station, has created quite a stir.
Assistant San Bernardino County Fire Chief Tom Marshall said the reports of a substantial delay in his department’s response to the Needles America’s Best Value Inn fire was “not true. The first unit was on the scene within three minutes,” he said.
That the firefighter in Station 32 who answered the postal worker’s bang on the station door lackadaisically carried on with his cell phone conversation and did not move his colleagues into immediate action was “absolutely inaccurate,” Marshall said. “Fire Station 32 is directly across the street from the motel. They were alerted not by a 911 call, but by someone pounding on the fire station door.” Marshall said that when the Needles fire battalion got into place across the street, “The fire was already through the roof on the second floor. The fire originated on the second floor. I was not there. The engine was there. The fire spread through a common attic. The fire ran the entire length of the attic.”
According to Marshall, “[Mohave Valley Fire] Chief [Ted] Martin said they had control around 9:30, which would have been around an hour-and-a-half.”
Marshall did not dispute that the building is likely a complete loss.
“The entire second floor was affected,” he said. “I would imagine they might have to take the entire building. That determination is to be made by the fire insurance carrier. I’m not a construction guy.”
That so many other agencies participated in knocking the fire down is not an indictment of the county fire company stationed in Needles, Marshall said.
“Having that many engines respond is standard operating procedure,” Marshall said. “We request mutual aid from nearby agencies, who have specialized equipment. In this case it was a two story building so we had a ladder truck from Bullhead City and Lake Havasu City.”
Marshall questioned the credibility of the accounts of a delay in the Station 32’s response. He said that the Sentinel was basing its narrative on questionable fonts of information and that it was relying on a less than trustworthy gatherer of facts.
“Mr. [David] Buckley continues to make these accusations about the county,” Marshall said. “He is a completely unreliable source of information. He has not been accurate in one single stretch of the imagination.”
Marshall said he could not explain how it was that the post office employee was unable to see the immediate efforts of Station 32’s personnel to bring the fire under control.
San Bernardino County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig told the Sentinel on Thursday that it was his understanding that “the fire had been burning quite a while, probably ten minutes, before we were called. It was burning because some employees at the motel were trying to take care of the problem themselves before they reported it.”
Hartwig said the first report received by the department came “when someone was knocking on the door.”
Hartwig did not discount the reports of efforts to alert the department by 911 calls that did not get through. He said there is an existing flaw in the emergency communications system in the Tri-state Area [California, Arizona and Nevada], in that cell phones can be routed out of state. “It all depends on what direction the tower is pointed,” he said. Thus, a call that went to a dispatch center on the Arizona side might have resulted in dispatchers there not being able to determine where the incident being referenced was occurring, Hartwig said.
Hartwig said an investigation into the fire was already being conducted. He indicated that he had been told that his agency had acted competently in response to the fire report and he assumed that was true. “I don’t know all the specifics, but from what I can tell we were the first ones on the scene, not through a 911 report but a knock on the door,” Hartwig said. “Our staff’s opinion was it had been burning for a while. I wasn’t aware of any delay.” Nevertheless, Hartwig said, the postal worker’s statement gave him pause. “We will put that into our investigation.”
Hartwig said he thought the political backdrop, in which Needles, among several other communities, has recently lost its traditional municipal fire department, may have colored the attitude of those now questioning the county fire department’s performance.
“My sense is the complaints you are hearing might be an outgrowth of the contentious process that went with the fire protection district annexation,” he said. “That contention hasn’t died down yet. I would be interested in finding out exactly what brought this to your attention.” Reported by David Buckley and Ruth Musser-Lopez from Needles and Mark Gutglueck from San Bernardino

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