A fire allowed to burn for hours, a door with four locks, holes in the walls and scattered rubbish.
These are some of the living conditions at Rotorua’s Spa Lodge described in an assessment that led to it being deemed a dangerous building and forcing its 20 residents - including children - to move out.
It also alleges a manager was chased by a knife-wielding occupant following an early morning fire.
Residents being dead-bolted in at night prompted Rotorua Lakes Council to issue Spa Lodge a dangerous building notice on November 16 and order a Fire and Emergency NZ (Fenz) assessment under the Building Act.
Before the assessment was completed, a fire broke out on November 20. A second dangerous building notice was issued on November 22.
Now, the report prompting that notice has been released to Local Democracy Reporting under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act.
Senior adviser for risk reduction Lynda McHugh, from the Rotorua Fire Station, was asked to make the assessment.
She visited on November 16 and November 20 - the day of the fire.
Spa Lodge is consented as a backpackers’ facility that allows long-term guests.
McHugh wrote the site manager said about 20 people lived on site and all were Ministry of Social Development clients.
“Children also reside at the property.”
She understood some occupants were “high-risk and may suffer from mental illness” and some may have previously lived at Four Canoes Hotel. It was issued a dangerous building notice last year.
The early morning fire
McHugh’s report detailed how the fire ignited in a rubbish bin on a deck about 5am, reaching the roof by 5.18am, then burning through the deck.
Fire and Emergency was alerted at 9.53am but when firefighters arrived they were sent to a safe point police set up because allegedly an occupant had chased a manager down the road with a large knife.
McHugh said residents’ behaviour around the fire was “very concerning”: Three were seen on CCTV appearing to notice the fire and walking away.
“No one activated the fire alarm system, called 111, alerted other occupants of the fire, alerted management of the fire, or extinguished the fire until approximately 7am. Then, it smouldered until I fully extinguished the fire at 11am.”
She said some occupants told her they didn’t see the fire as a safety risk.
McHugh wrote she doubted some occupants could self-evacuate during the night in the event of smoke or fire, or even “evacuate amongst the other occupants who may be rushing and pushing, with the added confusion of a fire alarm activation”.
Fire safety, building condition, and deadbolted exits
The report included pictures of the lodge’s “untidy” environment, “with rubbish and clothes scattered around the property”.
One image showed a door off its hinges, with debris on the floor. The building “appeared to be run down”, with windows and doors broken, holes in the walls, and damaged cladding.
McHugh wrote Fenz did not consider the building had adequate means of alerting high-risk, vulnerable occupants to a fire.
She did not consider the manual fire warning system adequate and occupants could not be relied on to activate it.
As for the deadbolted exits, McHugh said the site manager told her the night manager would lock both the front exit doors with a key so no one could leave or enter the premises during the night.
McHugh wrote it was an unacceptable practice to lock people into a building and remove the key.
“In the event of smoke and or fire, the occupants will become trapped and disorientated, likely resulting in smoke inhalation-related deaths or fire-related deaths.”
She said that between her visits both deadlocks were replaced with locks that could be “easily opened” from the inside.
McHugh noted the non-compliant locks were meant to have been replaced immediately after a visit by an Independent Qualified Person in August.
McHugh noticed an office door had four separate locks.
“Again, I have concerns that in the event of smoke or fire, with limited visibility, a person would be able to find and unlock all of these locks, enabling them to escape to a place of safety.”
McHugh reported she was told smoke alarms were installed in every bedroom but found these removed in ones she was invited to inspect. She presumed this was so occupants could smoke inside.
One room had a mini benchtop oven with an element on top. Food was left inside it. She noted the fire risk of cooking in a bedroom not set up for it. The smoke alarm had been removed.
She said records indicated no hand-held firefighting equipment had been tested and maintained for a long time and she found it was overall in a “significant state of disrepair”.
One extinguisher was covered in rust, with release pin removed and yellow tag stuffed into the nozzle. She doubted it would work and said it needed replacing immediately. Another was nearly empty.
She found no evacuation procedure information. There was no approved evacuation scheme and the owner was given until December 13 to set one.
McHugh concluded injury or death was considered “likely” in the event of a fire at the lodge.
“I [the report author] consider there is an extremely high fire risk to occupants in this building day or night, given the high risk/needs of the clientele, the inoperable handheld firefighting equipment, inadequate fire alarm system and the known behaviour of these occupants during a fire.“
The owner of Spa Lodge was approached for comment.
The council’s community and district development group manager Jean-Paul Gaston previously said the building could not be occupied until its fire safety features provided a safe environment.
The requirements had been discussed with the operator and other relevant agencies but the actions taken would depend on how the lodge would be used in future.
The notice, displayed on the outside of the building, said the owner must complete works to remove or reduce danger by February.
The lodge was not being used as emergency housing and the Ministry of Social Development previously said it did not “place people in boarding houses or hostels” or have any power to tell people where to live or inspect their living arrangements.
“Our staff provide people with advice about their options, and assess eligibility for financial assistance.”
Laura Smith is a Local Democracy Reporting journalist based at the Rotorua Daily Post. She previously reported general news for the Otago Daily Times and Southland Express, and has been a journalist for four years.
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