Fire endangers those in red-tagged buildings
OROVILLE >> A residence in Oroville, deemed unsafe to live in after a long history of fires, once again caught fire Jan. 28 endangering several people living there and nearly killing a woman had someone not pulled her out of a window, witnesses said.
Buildings at what is called “Church in the Barn”, a place once known for its hospitality to unhoused people, have been redtagged multiple times by Butte County Code Enforcement after a series of fires that damaged the residence in 2021 and 2022.
The main house on the property, located on the 2700 block of Highway 70 south of Oroville, was most recently red-tagged in July 2022 after fire damaged the side of the house.
It was deemed uninhabitable and was cited by code enforcement to have exposed electrical wires, no power, water and heating.
Several people appear to have moved back into the house, though, despite the red-tagged status and offers of county homeless services.
Shauna Hartman who lives on the property said that on the day of the fire, she helped hoist her friend Ted to the roof of the burning house, and he pulled out their friend Jean through a skylight window.
“We damn near lost Jean,” Hartman said. “We damn near lost Jean.”
Cal Fire-Butte County responded to the house fire and reported all residents got out of the building safely with no injuries.
Battalion Chief John Gaddie said the cause of the fire is still under investigation.
Witnesses of the fire said it was caused by a generator with power cables running inside the house.
Carmel Garcia, a former resident who returned to visit friends after the Jan. 28 fire, said that her friends and others continue to live at the residence despite the red tags because they have nowhere to go,
especially most recently because of the winter storms in January.
“It’s cold, it’s raining, and they’re slipping into the buildings that are being tagged,” Garcia. “They don’t know where to go and tents have been totally useless with this weather we have been having.”
Garcia, upon visiting the property, began writing a letter to Home Depot for donations of wood to board up the home and is seeking help for her friends living there.
Hartman lives with her family and said she and a group of people purchased a piece of property nearby by saving money since redtags were issued July 2022.
She said they plan to move out but don’t have transportation to get there because the road to the property requires fourwheel drive.
“It’s been hard for us. So now I’m trying to get me and my family out of here,” Hartman said.
Sherry Hartman, Shauna’s mom, said code enforcement officers were apologetic with fines for violating the red-tag citation dropping the fee from $500 to $100.
“They had some kind of mercy on us, they know we’re in a tight spot.” Sherry Hartman said.
The property owner, Bob Sagor, told a reporter to leave the property on Monday.
Chris Jellison, code enforcement manager for Butte County, said the county has been dealing with code violations on the property for several years and made numerous visits to try to get people out of the buildings because of safety concerns.
Jellison said he knows of four fires: two fires on the main house, one fire on a mobile home, and one fire which burnt down the original barn in 2021. He said the property owner has had several chances to fix issues with the property but hasn’t.
“Thank God no one has died in a fire out there,” Jellison said.
He said that several attempts were made by the department to try getting people off the property and served trespassing citations.
“Once we red-tag a structure for unsafe conditions — it doesn’t matter if it’s Church in the Barn, it’s any structure — nobody can be in there,” Jellison said.
Jellison said that the owner is suspected of continuing to charge rent to unhoused people in buildings with no power, water or heating. People living on the property said they were charged for rent past July 2022.
The fate of the property will be decided by a hearing office presiding over a public nuisance abatement case with code enforcement and the property owner.
Jellison said a hearing was held on Jan. 25 and the hearing officer is expected to make a judgment of whether or not the property is a public nuisance by Feb. 13.
If the judgment is in favor of Butte County Code Enforcement, the property owner must pay fines which will turn into a lien if unpaid, and the owner has 30 days to clean the property themselves otherwise an abatement warrant will be issued to clean the property.
The extent of the property clean-up can range from boarding up windows to complete demolition, depending on the judgment, Jellison said.
People living on the property said Butte County Code Enforcement visited with case workers who offered shelter services, but one person said they didn’t want to go because of the shelter’s rules.
Briana Harvey Butterfield, housing and homeless administrator for Butte County Department of Employment and Social Services said the department visited the property in the past in order to provide assistance, but has not heard anything from people there since the new year.
“My understanding is that it is not a safe place for habitation so we provided specific housing options and offered to assist folks in finding an alternative location,” Harvey-Butterfield said.
Scott Kennelly, director of Butte County Behavioral Health, said the department has had a long history with people living at Church in the Barn and paid visits when code enforcement informed them that the place will no longer allow occupants.
Kennelly said the department doesn’t typically conduct outreach at private properties unless Butte County Code Enforcement requests involvement. He said his department’s last involvement at the property was moving clients into supportive housing in July 2022.
“After July, when everyone was told ‘you’re done’ we stopped going to the Church in the Barn. However, if they returned … we weren’t aware of that,” Kennelly said.
Kennelly said if a person with substance abuse requests help, there are sober living environments and short term housing programs available. He said there may be several reasons why people might deny services including addiction or distrust with authorities based on previous experiences.
“When it’s cold and they need a place to stay, they find a way back in, but you would hope that a number of people would go to a local shelter or avail themselves to services.” Kennelly said.