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Here are Portland's 64 'unsafe' buildings and why firefighters won't go inside

Citywide, firefighters have identified dozens of buildings currently deemed unsafe for them to enter during a fire. Not all of them are vacant.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Unsafe buildings in Portland are a safety challenge that firefighters face. That was certainly the case when flames raced through an old empty church in downtown last week — but thanks to an unsafe building designation, they had advanced warning of what they'd be up against and knew not to enter the building.

On Thursday afternoon, firefighters first on scene of a big fire in downtown Portland spoke about the valiant effort they made to save the structure next to the former Korean church.

The church that burned has since been demolished and is now a pile of rubble. The old church rectory, since converted into an apartment building, is still standing.

Credit: Scappoose Fire
Aftermath from a downtown Portland church fire, as seen from fire investigators' drone

Advanced information about the vacant church through an “unsafe building” designation warned firefighters who first responded to the flames on January 3 to stay out for their safety.

“It is a multi-pronged approach to warn the first-in engines, trucks, companies the unique hazards to them fighting fire in an offensive strategy,” said Battalion Chief Tom Walsh.  

Walsh was working the night the flames burned the church. He is also a structural engineer and coordinator of the fire bureau's unsafe building program.

The battalion chief explained that the unsafe building designation is strictly about firefighter safety and does not necessarily indicate a building is uninhabitable or able to accommodate everyday use.

Dozens of buildings around Portland considered 'unsafe'

Citywide, firefighters have identified 64 buildings currently deemed unsafe for them to enter during a fire. The church that burned was on that list. 

Many buildings on the list are not vacant, like the Barbur Court Apartments in Southwest Portland. Miguel Martin lives in a newer place next door and said the people at Barbur Court are nice, but the building is not.

“It just looks bad, man. It's cracking. It's just getting worse and worse and nothing's really being done about it,” said Martin.

Calls to the building owner were not returned on Thursday.  

Reading this article on your phone? Click here for full list of buildings currently deemed unsafe.

The fire bureau's unsafe designation is only for firefighters; other city inspectors decide if buildings are so dangerous they need to be condemned.

For instance a tall, multi-story old home on Southwest Market Street is on the firefighter's unsafe list, but it's been operating as an apartment building for a long time.

Nearly 10 years ago, a fire bureau inspector said he found conditions that would be tough for fire crews, writing "fire operations and laddering the building would be very difficult."

Credit: KGW
Home on Southwest Market Street

Looking at the place, you can see why. KGW spoke to the building owner who said they have a working fire alarm system, have regular fire inspections and crews even came up and practiced their plan there.

“They're completely within the building code and fire code to be operated the manner that they are in," said Walsh. "There are numerous of them [buildings] that are relatively safe for day-to-day habitation and use but here are hazards to responders."

Other buildings, like the long-vacant Gordon’s Fireplace store at Northeast 33rd Avenue and Broadway Street have the “U” sign for unsafe on the exterior. The building is covered in graffiti with broken windows everywhere. 

For these and other buildings deemed unsafe, fire crews not only have orders not to enter, but specific plans on how to fight the fire effectively and safely from the outside.

Credit: KGW
Vacant Gordon's Fireplace building on Northeast 33rd Avenue and Broadway Street

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