Research Paper: Mizpah Hotel Fire in Reno, Nevada

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¶ … Mizpah Hotel fire in Reno, Nevada on October 31, 2006. The Mizpah Hotel fire is notable because it took place in an historic building in downtown Reno, just steps away from some of the largest casino resorts in the city, and it resulted in total destruction of the building. It also resulted in 12 deaths, and it was a result of arson, for which the arsonist is serving 12 consecutive life terms in prison. The fire resulted in increased fire protection in the city, including reoccurring safety checks on business buildings and hotels throughout the city.

The Mizpah Hotel was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984 and on the Reno City Register of Historic Places in 1999. The hotel, located at 214 Lake Street in downtown Reno, was built at three different times, 1922, 1925, and 1930. Thus, the hotel did not have a sprinkler system at the time of the fire, because it was a historic building and retrofitting it with sprinklers was not required because of the historic status. Twelve people died in the fire, making it the most deadly in Reno history.

The fire began on the evening (about 10pm) of October 31, 2006 in a hallway on the second floor in the north wing of the hotel. The building had smoke detectors and monitors that were monitored 24-hours a day by ADT Security Services, who notified the Reno Fire Department (RFD) when monitors detected smoke from the fire. RFD Station 1 was located about 500 feet from the building, and as they were dispatched, they saw heavy black smoke issuing from the building, and requested additional support. It took approximately two minutes for the first units to arrive on site. Smoke was issuing from windows on the second and third floors, and there were several residents hanging out of the windows screaming for help (Ockershausen, Cohen, 2008, p. 1). The United States Fire Administration (USFA) authors who wrote a discussion of the fire note, "The hotel was not equipped with automatic sprinklers, but did have Class I and II standpipe systems. Class I standpipe systems are designed primarily for fire department use, while the Class II system is designed for firefighting by the building occupants until the arrival of the fire department" (Ockershausen, Cohen, 2008, p. 2). While the fire alarms functioned properly during the fire, many occupants of the hotel ignored them because they had often malfunctioned in the past. Many people stayed in their rooms until they saw smoke coming in under the doors, and by then it was too late for them to escape through the hallways. In fact, seven of the twelve victims were found in second and third floor hallways.

The construction of the hotel was typical for the time. The bottom floor served as retail space to a variety of tenants, and the upper floors were hotel rooms. There was a service entrance off Lake Street that helped form the building's "U" shaped appearance. The north wing was the oldest wing of the building, first constructed in 1922. The building had a brick facade and the interior was traditional, lathe and plaster construction. It was constructed before the City of Reno adopted uniform building controls. It had a flat roof with an interior cockloft under the roof, and the fire vented through the roof and spread through the cockloft, which is common in flat-roofed buildings.

The building served as a residential-type hotel, with most of the occupants long-term renters who rented their rooms by the week or month. All of the 80 residents were displaced by the fire. The mattresses in the hallways were a result of the building's owners replacing old mattresses with new ones, and they had not been switched out yet. After the fire, inspectors believe that the mattresses helped spread the fire quicker and make it more intense, resulting in total destruction of all the rooms in the north wing of the hotel. The results of the fire were devastating. "In total, 16 pieces of fire apparatus and 72 personnel were involved in rescue and fire suppression operations. The fire resulted in $2.4 million dollars in damages" (Ockershausen, Cohen, 2008, p. 3). Eventually, the entire building was demolished, because the damage was so severe.

When the fire department arrived on the scene, they made the decision to begin rescue operations immediately since so many people were hanging out of windows and saying they would jump. By the time they began fire operations, the north wing of the building was fully involved. The inspectors continue, "Fire spread was aided by the numerous polyurethane foam mattresses that were stacked along the second and third floor hallways. The mattresses contained 100-percent polyurethane foam padding, which is highly combustible" (Ockershausen, Cohen, 2008, p. 4). The RFD spent five to ten minutes in fire suppression inside the building before determining the building was becoming dangerously unstable. In fact, when firefighters entered the second floor hallway to fight the fire, the heat was so intense their helmets began to melt. They left the building, and eventually the third floor and part of the roof collapsed on the north wing. The south wing suffered intense smoke damage.

There were about 72 firefighters dispatched to the fire in the four alarms. When the firefighters evacuated, a defensive strategy meant to save the south wing of the building began, using handlines and master streams (Ockershausen, Cohen, 2008, p. 21-22). After the fire was finally extinguished, it took eight days to finish the investigation and locate all the victims, due to the instability of the building. The RFD called in ATF officers to help investigate the fire. Before the building was demolished, the RFD used it for training purposes. Another reporter notes, "The Reno Fire Department will use the remaining portion of the Mizpah Hotel in downtown Reno beginning today, Wednesday, April 4, through Friday for training exercises involving forcible entry, ventilation, ladders, advancing hose lines and breaching walls for rescue" (Turner, 2007). Thus, the fire led to increased training for Reno firefighters, and it led to some other changes in the department, as well.

Clearly, a fire suppression system would have helped control the fire in the Mizpah case. A Reno reporter notes, "Less than an hour before the deadliest fire in Reno's history roared through the Mizpah Hotel on Halloween night 2006, two firefighters had been in the building and noticed mattresses stacked against the wall in violation of fire safety codes" (Powers, 2008). It is reported that the arsonist (Valerie Moore) who set the blaze piled mattresses in front of another tenant's doors and lit them on fire to start the blaze. The reporter continues, "In a drunken rage, Moore had propped one of the mattresses in the hallway against the door of a tenant, who she claimed had attacked her, and set it on fire" (Powers, 2008). As a result of the fire, the RFD chief implemented a system of fire prevention checks by his department, the Fire Company Inspection Program. Each company inspects buildings in their jurisdiction on a regular basis in an attempt to make buildings safer in the event of a fire.

In retrospect, most of the fire command's activities were successful during the fire operations. About 70 residents were rescued from the blaze, and only one of those people died. If firefighters had not made such extensive initial rescue efforts, more people could have perished in the fire. Since firefighters did not know there was highly combustible material in the hallways, they did not know the fire would spread as quickly as it did, and so they did not attack the fire immediately, they concentrated on rescue efforts. The building was beyond saving, and rescue efforts were the most important element of the initial response to the fire.

Interestingly, even though the fire was extremely hot and did break through many of the resident's doors, there was property salvaged from the fire. Another reporter notes, "Crews on Tuesday were demobilizing as investigators wrapped up their efforts to salvage property. Officials said a great deal of property was salvaged from the rooms and returned to tenants" (O'Malley, 2007). All of the surviving tenants were eventually relocated to other residences, many with help from the local area Red Cross.

There were some problems associated with the fire. The first fire respondents did not have enough personnel to man the firelines and attempt rescues. The investigators note, "The first-arriving units lacked a sufficient number of emergency personnel to conduct simultaneous attack on the fire and rescue operations. The IC made the correct decision to delay offensive fire operations and commit all available resources to effect the rescue of the trapped building occupants" (Ockershausen, Cohen, 2008, p. 47). No firefighters were injured in the fire, and rescues did result in many lives saved. The inspectors feel that if the hotel had been equipped with a fire sprinkler system, the fire would have been extinguished before the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Mizpah Hotel Fire in Reno, Nevada.  (2008, November 24).  Retrieved July 17, 2019, from https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/mizpah-hotel-fire-reno-nevada/617038

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"Mizpah Hotel Fire in Reno, Nevada."  Essaytown.com.  November 24, 2008.  Accessed July 17, 2019.
https://www.essaytown.com/subjects/paper/mizpah-hotel-fire-reno-nevada/617038.