The City of Kelso is working to clean up the Fifth Avenue property where a fire last Sunday ultimately led to a man’s death, but it’s slow going due to the complicated legal process involved.
Cowlitz 2 firefighters believe the fire broke out in an abandoned van in the backyard, which is in the 1200 block of Fifth Avenue. The house, which is condemned by the city, was not damaged itself but the flames burned through part of the backyard and nearly entered a neighbor’s shed.
Neighbors say that Joseph Marlowe, a 56-year-old man who lived next door, died that morning after trying to fight the flames with a garden hose. Marlowe died of an acute coronary event due to stress from the fire and carbon monoxide inhalation, the Cowlitz County coroner’s office confirmed Friday.
Firefighters are still investigating the circumstances behind the fire but suspect it may have been human-caused, Cowlitz 2 Fire Chief Dave LaFave said Thursday.
Some neighbors this week told TDN the house should just be torn down given the state of the property and the fact that it’s across the street from the under-construction Wallace Elementary School.
Kelso Nuisance Abatement Officer Mike Meier said Friday that the City is working to get legal authorization to clean the backyard up again, but it’s a complicated process.
The legal owners of the house passed away several years ago, and their relatives living there did not establish a water account with the City, so the house was condemned Dec. 2017 as uninhabitable.
The property has received five complaints through Nuisance Abatement in that time, Meier said, and Kelso Police have made around eight arrests of people suspected of criminally trespassing there.
So in January 2019, due to the transient activity and there being no living person responsible to take care of the complaints, the City boarded the house up to keep people out.
The house has been re-boarded several times as trespassers have occasionally torn the boarding off to re-enter the house, Meier said.
By early 2019, the outside of the house “had become a virtual dumping ground for the neighborhood,” Meier said: “Trash and garbage covered the entire back yard at an average depth of three feet.”
A relative who was interested in maintaining the property entered an agreement with the City in March of that year to clean up the accumulated garbage, but ultimately failed to do so. That allowed the City a month later to hire a crew to clean up all the garbage, but more has accumulated since that clean-up, Meier said.
The house has not been deemed a dangerous structure – a ruling which would require a judge’s signature – so the City can’t foreclose on it to tear it down. The house is likely not in stellar condition, Meier said, but it doesn’t appear to be at risk of collapsing.
However, the property is nearly $3,000 behind in property taxes dating back to 2018. By April of next year, the county would be able to start the foreclosure process on the house if the taxes still haven’t been paid.
At that point, any parties with an interest in the house would have until December 2021 to pay the delinquent taxes before the property goes off to auction.
In the meantime, the City must continue to send notice to the listed owners of the house — who are deceased — before taking new abatement action against the accumulated trash. With the courts slowed by COVID-19 restrictions, that could take a while, Meier said.
“It’s frustrating for the City too,” Meier said. “I know it’s a frustration for the neighbors, and I fully understand that when (Wallace Elementary School) reopens, those front doors are going to be two doors down. And that’s just nasty having people drop off their kids ... (with) this place across the street. I totally understand that. But I’ve got to work within the rules and confines that are laid out in front of me.”
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