B&Bs not part of many cities' fire inspections

In the wake of New Ulm's fatal fire, the Star Tribune found state law does not require such inspections by cities.

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New Ulm, where a B&B fire killed six people in July, is one Minnesota city that does routine fire inspections of bed-and-breakfast inns. State law treats B&Bs as single-family homes.

Photo: Leah Millis, Star Tribune

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When fire killed six people at a bed-and-breakfast in New Ulm, Minn., last month, the tragedy was felt at the William Sauntry Mansion in Stillwater.

There, Tom Lynum, shaken by the news, called the city to ask that a fire official inspect the six-room B&B he operates at the Sauntry Mansion on 4th Street N.

"Obviously, guest safety is our No. 1 concern," said Lynum, whose request -- when it is filled -- will make for an unusual event. While the inn is three blocks from the fire department, he said, the business is not among those inspected by the city.

Minnesota law does not require local fire officials to regularly inspect B&Bs -- and in seven of nine cities contacted by the Star Tribune, fire marshals and inspectors don't. One of the exceptions is New Ulm.

The state fire marshal's office inspects lodging of six units or more every three years. But for B&Bs with fewer than six rooms -- and most in Minnesota fit that category, according to a 2010 state travel guide -- it is the city that decides whether to require inspections.

Among cities contacted by the Star Tribune, St. Paul, Red Wing and Stillwater require no post-opening visits by their inspectors, nor does Hudson, Wis.

"We don't look at them at all," said Hudson fire inspector/marshal Dave Krupich, citing a state law that exempts smaller B&Bs from regular inspections. "I find that very, very hard to believe. But it's been that way forever."

The Wisconsin threshold for state inspections is nine units or more, done annually.

Treated like a home

In Minnesota, inspections of smaller B&Bs is uncommon, for when it comes to meeting the state fire code, they are treated like single-family homes under state law, "and we don't go into your home to tell you what you can and cannot do," said Tom Ballis, Stillwater's deputy fire chief.

The very charm of inns is their homelike atmosphere, officials note.

Health inspections by the state Health Department, which are required of all B&Bs every one to two years, do include "life safety factors." At the Bohemian Bed and Breakfast in New Ulm, the scene of the July 2 fatal fire, the most recent life-safety inspection was limited to whether the smoke detectors worked, a local health official said.

Glen Bergstrand, state fire marshal supervisor, also described the Health Department reviews as "very basic."

Asked whether the state Department of Public Safety, which includes the state fire marshal's office, has considered including smaller B&Bs in the inspection rotation, spokesman Doug Neville said such an idea was not on the radar of state officials.

"There are staffing issues for us," he said. Lowering the inspection threshold to a couple of rooms, he said, "could carry a hefty price tag."

'Tragic things' happen

A few cities contacted by the Star Tribune deviate from the hands-off policy on local fire inspections.

Duluth inspects its B&Bs every three years because they are commercial operations, said Deputy Fire Marshal Jim Reed. New Ulm requires fire marshal inspections as part of its annual licensing process, said City Manager Brian Gramentz.

Last week, investigators said the July 2 fire was started by candles left unattended on a three-season porch. Smoke detectors could be heard in a 911 call, investigators said.

Days after the fire, Ellwood Zabel, the city's fire marshal, said he had inspected a carriage house in the back but not the Bohemian's main house in December because the owner said it would not be used by lodgers. The building also was overdue for a health inspection to be conducted every 18 months by Brown-Nicollet Environmental Health, director Karen Swenson said last week.

"I could have been there the day before and it wouldn't have changed the outcome," she said. "Things just happen. Tragic things just happen."

Three lodgers were among the six people who died.

In Stillwater, Lynum plans to ask the city's fire inspector to suggest ways to strengthen fire-safety measures that he said already take into account steps required by insurers. For example, Lynum said, one insurer told him to install portable lights in guest rooms so lodgers could use them to get around in the event of power failures.

He also likes the idea of fire officials being familiar with the interior layout of the building.

Ballis said the fire department will work with Sauntry Mansion.

At the state Department of Public Safety, spokewoman Kristine Chapin offered a checklist for bed-and-breakfast visitors:

•Are smoke detectors present on all levels, including in the bedrooms, and are they functional?

•Is a fire extinguisher readily available?

•Are exits accessible from all areas and free of clutter?

•Are there egress windows, easily opened, in the bedrooms?

•Is the kitchen cooking equipment clean and free from grease accumulation?

Asked if the questions applied to smaller B&Bs, too, Chapin replied, "Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes!"

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109

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