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Chief: We May Never Know What Started Ludlow Fire

At the Ludlow City Council caucus meeting on Thursday night, Fire Chief Rob Dreyer provided more details about the fire at River’s Breeze earlier this month that damaged five units and evacuated dozens of residents. He indicated that arson could not be ruled out, but could also not be proven.

“The fire started at the lowest level in the rear, unfortunately, and even though this individual did not have a lot of combustibles on his deck, where the fire started was in the corner where the deck and privacy walls meet. The only thing out there was a flower pot, there were no flammable liquids, no electric there, we feel very confident of where the fire started, we just can’t prove how it started. The problem with arson is as soon as a fire starts burning, what starts happening? The evidence starts getting burned up,” Dreyer said.

He went on to say that the Ludlow Fire Department decided to bring in the Kenton County fire investigation team to dig out the burn site. Two days later, Dreyer met with the Homeowners Association’s fire investigator Bob Rentz and six insurance agencies’ fire representatives and that each had agreed with the initial LFD findings.

“We may never know what started it because the day after the fire, the three-story decks collapsed in,” Dreyer said.

He explained that the steady western breeze that blows through the river valley helped stoke the flames higher up the deck balconies and that the upper decks may have had combustibles that only exacerbated the problem. He said that LFD had to kick in the doors of 14 units to ensure everyone in the building could get to safety. The residents were cooperative in getting out of their condos once they learned it was on fire, he said.

In a case of perhaps not learning a lesson, Dreyer said that only days later, the fire department spotted with binoculars a resident with an open fire pit on their deck in River’s Breeze. He intends on attending the Homeowners Association meeting on Tuesday to talk about fire safety with those present.

The value of the building before the fire was listed at around $2.3 million according to Dreyer’s PVA research on the property.

In another discussion at the caucus meeting, Code Enforcement Officer Tom Gardener presented a flow chart pertaining to the operations his department enacts when performing their civic duty.

He explained that a code enforcement issue is almost always initiated by a complaint made by a resident. He and staff do drive the neighborhood to locate any code violations, and once inside a residence, additional violations may be issued when encountered by the code enforcement officer, but his flow chart began with a complaint received.  If the complaint is valid after being reviewed by staff, the property in question is inspected. Once inspected and found to be in violation, the owner of the property in question is then issued a violation notice and is then inspected again after a window of time has passed. 

Not all violations are given notice before skipping ahead straight to citation issued if the violation is particularly severe. Once a citation is issued, a daily fine of $100 a day is put into place and a lien is filed on the property.

Property owners are then given the chance to contest the citation and a hearing is scheduled within 7 days. With no appeal, the case is reviewed until the issue is abated. If the violation is still not resolved, and the daily fines have maxed out at $5,000, then a new Code Enforcement Board case file is opened.

A particular instance of code violation even before the presentation as City Councilman Josh Boone noticed that the storefront at 188 Elm Street had replaced its original-sized storefront window with a smaller window and wooden boards around it to fill in the gap. It is known that the property is currently a residential rental, which apparently is another violation since commercially zoned buildings cannot be used for residential.

Gardener emphasized that the ultimate goal of his department is not to issue citations, but to work with property owners to bring their buildings up to code.

The number of cases that were opened by the City of Ludlow and PDS the year before Gardener came on the job was 188 and only 33 of those were closed.  During his first year, he and his staff opened over 600 and over 500 were closed.  He was also encouraged by the fact that there have been less repeat offenders of the same violation than what is often the norm in most cities.

“That’s where the proactive comes in and shows you how that works,” he said.

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor