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Oregon's Busiest Tourist Attraction, with 3 million Visitors
 a Year, Protected by Tiny Volunteer Fire Department

By Les Zaitz, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.McClatchy-Tribune Business News

Dec. 24, 2006 - WILLAMINA -- With 3 million visitors a year, Spirit Mountain Casino is Oregon's busiest tourist attraction. But state and local officials say it also stands out for a potentially dangerous lack of fire protection.

Chuck Eddings, who runs the mostly volunteer fire district that protects the five-story casino-motel complex, says there could be a "catastrophic" loss of life if sprinkler systems failed. His tiny West Valley Fire District lacks a ladder that can reach above two floors, and the closest trucks that can do so are 45 minutes away.

"I personally wouldn't stay on the upper floors," Eddings said.

For the past two years, Eddings has sounded the alarm that the growing casino operations are beyond his ability to protect. Last year, he urged the Spirit Mountain hotel to warn guests of the limited fire service.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, which operates the casino, insists the complex is safe. A consultant the tribes hired praised the casino's design and fire safety programs. "We are absolutely confident, as outside studies have shown, that we are providing a safe environment," said tribal spokeswoman Siobhan Taylor.

But Eddings is backed up by state fire officials, who say that casino employees have been reluctant to order evacuations during alarms and that elderly patrons could be at risk from smoke during even a low-intensity blaze.

In part, the dispute reflects the fact that Oregon -- unlike California and Washington -- doesn't require tribes to pay for fire services. Among the nine Oregon tribes with gaming operations, the Grand Ronde is alone in not regularly supporting local fire service. The others either pay local departments or run their own fire agencies.

As sovereign nations, the tribes are exempt from property taxes that would normally cover fire service.

State fire officials concede that the casino is designed for maximum fire safety. But mechanical systems can fail, they say -- as during a 1980 fire at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where most of the 85 victims died after being trapped in smoke-filled upper floors of the 26-story hotel while they waited for rescue.

"The (Spirit Mountain) building is built as good as you're going to get," said Stacy Warner, assistant chief deputy state fire marshal. "But that building also holds a whole lot of people."

The tragedy at the MGM Grand jolted fire officials nationwide because the hotel contained advanced fire suppression systems. Grand Ronde officials maintain that their casino complex, which draws up to 10,500 visitors a day, also has a state-of-the-art suppression system and evacuation plan that can handle any emergency.

"This system is so effective that if a fire emergency were to occur at the casino and lodge, patrons and employees would be efficiently evacuated and the fire likely suppressed before the arrival of fire suppression services," Chris Leno, the tribe's general manager, wrote this summer to state and local fire officials.

Documents show that Eddings has raised safety concerns for years.

His agency protects a sprawling territory with a dwindling base of volunteers. Four paid firefighters spend most time on medical calls, while many of the 50 volunteers work far from the main fire hall in Willamina.

His unease about his department's ability to protect Spirit Mountain escalated two years ago when the Grand Ronde started planning for a seven-story hotel. He knew he didn't have equipment that could reach high enough and probably wouldn't have enough personnel to rescue people from a tall burning structure.

The worry surfaced in a February 2004 meeting among tribal executives, hotel designers and fire officials. A state fire official later noted that "additional negotiations with the local fire departments will occur to make sure the building has safe coverage and adequate response time." But those talks never happened, fire officials said.

Soon after the meeting, Paul Nees, a deputy state fire marshal, wrote hotel designers about relying primarily on fire sprinkler systems. "The best fire protection systems are not always totally effective, as has been proven by some recent tragic events," Nees wrote.

He noted shortcomings in West Valley's capabilities, including lack of a ladder truck. "The rescue of persons on upper floors by elevating or aerial devices from the fire service is over 30 minutes' and approaching 45 minutes' travel time," Nees wrote. The closest ladder trucks are in Dallas and McMinnville.

Eddings was more blunt in a letter dated March 4, 2004, to the Grand Ronde tribal council.

"The fire district cannot provide adequate fire protection to prevent an incident that may incur catastrophic loss of life," he said, noting that the district's tallest ladder reaches only two stories.

Eddings' letter didn't find its way to the tribal executive responsible for the casino until nine months later. Lynn Hillman, a former Oregon State Police commander who is now executive director of the Grand Ronde Gaming Commission, said he acted promptly once the letter was passed to him.

Hillman retained HYT Corp., a California engineering firm, to assess fire risk at Spirit Mountain. The June 2005 report praised the tribe for an exemplary building and a strong safety program. Still, recommendations the firm termed "necessary" ran to three pages and included stepping up replacement of fire sprinkler heads that had been recalled.

The sprinkler heads had been found to fail when installed with low-pressure water systems, the report said, noting that the casino is fed by a high-pressure system "that should help to mitigate" the risk of defects.

The casino facilities director, Ron Reibach, told The Oregonian that all recalled sprinklers had yet to be replaced because of a shortage and that he had no schedule for completing the switch.

HYT also said the tribe should recruit volunteers for West Valley's fire substation in Grand Ronde "for the benefit of the casino, Grand Ronde, and the surrounding community." And it called for "regular cooperative training exercises" with casino workers and firefighters and upgraded air tanks for Eddings' district.

Tribal officials say the report shows the casino is safe, but state and local fire officials disagree.

Eddings wrote the tribe that only 23 of his department's 50 volunteers are actually firefighters. Moreover, "the past practice of Spirit Mountain Casino has been to silence the alarms and neglect to report any incidents to West Valley Fire District," he said.

A year after the report was issued, a fryer in the casino kitchen caught fire. West Valley officials say casino dispatchers didn't raise the alarm for firetrucks -- the fire was called in by a cook on his personal cell phone.

Nees, the deputy state fire marshal, has questioned the effectiveness of casino training and security staff.

"This group has placed security and customer relations above life safety in the past," according to a September 2005 e-mail message to his boss. "In the past, guests have been reluctant to evacuate their rooms, and staff has been even more reluctant to initiate evacuation when the fire alarm is activated."

"A low-intensity, heavy-smoke-producing fire could trap many elderly patrons in their hotel rooms or in the casino," Nees wrote.

In June, Eddings notified state and tribal officials that his agency wouldn't accept liability for a catastrophe at the casino. "This situation presents continuing imminent life jeopardy to its patrons, employees and firefighters," the fire chief wrote his state counterparts.

Eddings drew a two-page rebuttal from tribal General Manager Leno, who said the fire agency's services were "subordinate" to the casino sprinkler system.

Compact largely untouched

Eddings expected that Gov. Ted Kulongoski would address fire safety concerns earlier this year while negotiating changes to the state's gambling compact with the Grand Ronde.

The compact sets terms under which the casino can operate. The revised compact Kulongoski signed in March included a single sentence requiring the tribe to install effective fire sprinkler systems. Stephanie Striffler, special counsel to Attorney General Hardy Myers and one of the state's negotiators, acknowledged that the language was essentially unchanged from the original compact.

Eddings and state fire officials said they weren't consulted during negotiations and learned only later of the contract change. Striffler said negotiators focused on the state's larger interests in fire safety and didn't go into the talks to take care of Eddings' concerns.

Other tribes help pay for local fire services. In Canyonville, for example, the Cow Creek band runs Seven Feathers Resort, a four-story hotel and casino, and contributes $88,500 in lieu of property taxes to the Canyonville South Umpqua Fire District.

When the West Valley Fire District raised the issue of inadequate support in the past, the tribe urged the district to apply for a grant from its charity arm, the Spirit Mountain Community Fund. The fund granted $239,000 for a medical rig in 2000 and $50,000 toward a new water tender in 2003.

This year, however, the charity turned down the district's request for $730,000 to operate its Grand Ronde substation, the one closest to the casino. The station now counts on two volunteers, but it takes four firefighters to run an engine. The fund asked the district to pare the initial request to less than $200,000, then rejected it entirely in May.

In January, the tribal council is expected to consider paying for some staff and new equipment for the substation in Grand Ronde, although what specifically is up for discussion is unclear. Although tribal gambling revenues are confidential, Spirit Mountain is the state's highest-grossing casino.

Tribal officials don't doubt Eddings' sincerity but say they, too, are deeply committed to safety.

"We have never, never questioned the integrity of Chief Eddings," spokeswoman Taylor said, "merely his methods."

Eddings says the tribe's insistence that sprinklers alone can handle the job flies in the face of his agency's legal mandate to provide fire and medical services to all tribal property.

"That's their concept -- we really don't need you," Eddings said.

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To see more of The Oregonian, or to subscribe the newspaper, go to http://www.oregonian.com.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.

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