Firefighters Extinguish Mansion Fire and Restore Mount Washington Community

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by Stephanie Papp

Helicopters hovered over the 4000 block of Sea View Avenue during the late night hours of October 13, while a constant stream of fire trucks squeezed through the narrow streets leading to the top of Mount Washington. The sound of a huge explosion echoed through the canyon, followed by blue-colored flames blasting to the sky. Windows throughout a massive home imploded from the heat of the raging fire that quickly engulfed the 9,112 square-foot mansion. Fire trucks with screeching sirens could be heard from far down the hill as they made their way to the top of Mount Washington from every possible road. Yet more explosions caused fireballs to shoot into the sky. Yellow, orange, and red flames swallowed the mansion in one bite, resulting in huge plumes of smoke billowing throughout the air. It was a site which Mount Washington residents dread to think of, but are lucky enough to rarely experience.

It is a quiet, tight-knit neighborhood up on the hill, where just about everyone knows each other's name. Local kids attend the renowned Mount Washington Elementary School, where many of their parents attended and have known each other since they were children themselves. The loss of a home can be devastating to people everywhere, not to mention extremely frightening. Yet here in Mount Washington, the entire hilltop is affected when tragedy strikes. Neighbors historically join forces to help each other rebuild. Sadly, even though it has likely resulted in the death of an elderly resident, this fire has largely resulted in a communal sigh of relief around here.

Mount Washington sits atop of the communities of Cypress Park, Glassell Park, Highland Park, and Eagle Rock. The only way to the top is through narrow and windy roads. Its rustic canyons are thick with chaparral, California Pepper, Eucalyptus, and California Black Walnut trees. This time of year, the brush moisture levels are extremely low. The thought of a fire on the hill is an ever-present fear, which is why people scrambled to gather their most precious belongings when the news broke. Dave Travis, owner of Café NELA in Cypress Park, just barely had time to box up the priceless reel-to-reel tapes of Punk Rock shows he has recorded since the early 1980s. He was already halfway out the door when he went back for his VHS tapes. They are irreplaceable original recordings from old school-format cameras of historic Punk shows he recorded years ago. Shows such as Sonic Youth at Raji's and The Mentors at Al's Bar. "There was no way I could have let those go down with the house," he says now. "I never backed them up. The firefighters who responded up here have no idea the value of the homes they saved, and I don't mean monetary value," he says.

Built in 1991, the fire-gutted super structure is described on zillow.com as a "Tri-level home with fantastic views, 6 bedrooms and 4 bathrooms, the master bedroom is a suite and it is huge. Views from every floor. This is a builders own home, built to last. There are 5 fireplaces, hardwood, carpet and tile floors. Sauna, kitchen island, 24 new electric panels, and much more to list. First floor is a huge entertainers area, there are 4 bars in the house.” However, according to residents and authorities who interviewed those residents, there were at least 10 people renting rooms in the home.

After completion of the mansion, longtime residents took heed of the situation, resulting in the amendment of the building and zoning hillside ordinances in Mount Washington for new homes and major remodels. Section §12.21(A)17 of the City of Los Angeles Planning and Zoning Code imposes restrictions on the height of structures based on slope, and the installation of city-approved automatic fire sprinkler systems throughout the entire dwelling is required for new homes. According to the code, the city-approved sprinkler system required shall be sufficient to cover the entire dwelling and in compliance with applicable codes, unless otherwise determined by the Department of Building and Safety. There were no fire sprinklers ever installed in the Sea View Avenue home, not while under construction nor during any remodeling. The home was grandfathered in for the prior. For the latter, it is unclear whether the owner received a variance on zoning restrictions or added the new rooms without permits.

Ask any resident of Mount Washington and they will tell you the advantages to living there. The peace and serenity of the hilltop, the small town feel, the views, and the strong community ties. The owner of this Sea View mansion did not participate, nor engage, in the friendliness of the hillside community. Instead, he rented rooms to boarders for short and long-term periods. One man who worked on the home at the onset of the construction says there were originally six bedrooms, as advertised on any real estate website, but during a recent walk-through there were almost twice that amount, including the makeshift rooms, which were rented. Walls were knocked down and huts set up; makeshift rooms built to attract more tenants as the owner was falling behind on the $1.4 million mortgage.

Several local residents recently contacted by LA1 News and said they were threatened by the elderly patriarch of the mansion when they contacted parking enforcement officers about cars parked in the same spot for more than the three-day limit. It became the norm that his collection of imports and classic cars monopolized parking spaces on both sides of the street.

LAPD squad cars and helicopters appeared on several occasions after late-night calls by concerned residents. Several residents said drugs were a regular part of the goings on at the mansion. This quiet community began to despair.

Various owners struggled financially to keep the house. According to Zillow, in 1995 and 1997, the home sold at a foreclosure auction. From March of 2012 to May 2015, the home listed for sale four times with six price changes, five pending sales, and back on the market four times, and the listing removed four times with the last being on August 16, 2016. Moreover, on April 28, 2016, with a past due amount of $932,633, the record reads, "The owner of this property has been served a Notice of Default." Additionally, "This property was scheduled to be sold at a foreclosure auction on October 12, 2016 at 11 a.m."

The mansion fire on Thursday resulted in 145 firefighters dousing the blazing fire with everything they had in less than two hours; it was all over, without any damage other than the smell of smoke to residents on either side. Not even a tree was destroyed. Second shift firefighters were there when LA1 News arrived to ask questions. About 10 to 15 firefighters were there putting out flare-ups, assessing the damage to the entrance of the garage and main entrance, and looking for safe entrances into the home. There were none. The hillside home was in no condition for them to safely walk through and ensure that all the hot spots were out. Third shift consisted of four firefighters who started their shift as the sun set. They would remain onsite for the remainder of the night hosing down, when necessary, the barren skeleton of a home. A couple of plumes started up just after third shift started, and were quickly extinguished.

According to LAFD spokesperson David Ortiz just after the fire, an investigation was conducted and three cadaver dogs were sent in to look for the "owner," who is still missing. According to two firefighters on scene the Sunday after the fire, the three dogs found "something" in one of the bedrooms. However, firefighters did not find any human remains in their search. On Monday, October 24, a fire department source informed LA1 News that remains of a body was found, and that an announcement would follow after the Coroner report is filed and the next of kin is notified. Yet according to an update published at LAFD.org on October 21, investigators "have yet to discover human remains." Fire department officials now say that nobody was found in the burned-out home. There has been no official word on the timing of the fire, occurring just one day after the mansion was due to be sold at foreclosure auction.

Praise is given on the hill to the over 200 firefighters who safely put out the fire before it spread to other homes, and inevitably down the dry-brush hillside. While no one was sad to see the house go up in flames, they are all relieved no other homes were damaged, and a soothing sigh of relief was expressed as neighbors walked away from the skeletal remains of a mansion that brought despair to the tight-knit, social, community of Mount Washington.

Stephanie Papp is a lifelong resident of Mount Washington and the daughter of a decorated WWII veteran.

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