Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on September 1, 2020.

End to a Ghost Story

Three and a half years after Oakland’s Ghost Ship fire kills 36, the city agrees to pay $32.7 million in lawsuit settlements


It was a story that captivated a nation. In Oakland, California, where housing costs run steep, dozens of local artists had found a haven for cheap living, work, and play inside an abandoned, graffiti-stamped warehouse known unofficially as Ghost Ship. As egregiously non–code compliant as the two-story warehouse was, it flew under the radar of enforcement officials charged with maintaining building safety throughout the city of some 430,000 people.

When a fire broke out at Ghost Ship during an electronic music dance party on the night of December 2, 2016, three dozen people died, unable to escape the smoke and flames through a maze of makeshift walls, staircases, and clutter.

In July, that story, or at least most of it, came to a close as Oakland agreed to pay nearly $33 million to settle lawsuits filed on behalf of 32 victims as well as to one survivor, Sam Maxwell, who according to a statement released by the city, suffered “severe, lifelong injuries.” Despite the settlements, the city maintains it bears no responsibility for the blaze. “The city continues to assert…that it is not liable for these tragic losses,” the statement said. “The city decided to settle this case because of the cost-benefit analysis.”

Lawyers representing victims and their families have said the city didn’t do enough to investigate unsafe conditions at the warehouse-turned-living-space. Records show, for example, that in 2015, an Oakland police officer responded to a noise complaint at Ghost Ship and noted its tinderbox conditions, but nothing changed. “If they’d done the right thing, this tragedy never would have happened,” attorney Mary Alexander told the New York Times.

Reporting by NFPA Journal on the incident detailed the difficulty cities face in uncovering dangerous and illegal repurposing of buildings, like the one that took place in Oakland. “Folks in the enforcement community will tell you that this is one of the biggest concerns they have in front of them,” NFPA President and CEO Jim Pauley told the magazine. Shortly thereafter, the fire served as a primary influence in the creation in 2018 of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem, a framework for achieving a system of fire, life, and electrical safety that emphasizes the many interrelated aspects of such a system.

Last year, a jury acquitted Max Harris of 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter in the Ghost Ship case. Harris served as an assistant to Derick Almena, the primary leaseholder of the warehouse. The jury was unable to reach a verdict for a separate case involving Almena, who was also charged with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, and a retrial is set to begin in October.

Read the original NFPA Journal article on the Ghost Ship fire, “Under the Radar,” at, and learn more about the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem at

Paradise, CA
Ron Howard doc joins list of Camp Fire films

Academy Award–winning director Ron Howard’s highly anticipated documentary on the Camp Fire, Rebuilding Paradise, was screened in select areas on July 31.

Howard’s 95-minute film, made for National Geographic Documentary Films, is the latest in a series of documentaries—at least four have been released so far—chronicling California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire ever, which tore through the town of Paradise in November 2018, killing over 80 people and destroying some 14,000 homes.

The 2018 Camp Fire all but destroyed the small town of Paradise in northern California. It was the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in state history. (Getty Images)

“The first 10 minutes are all live fire footage and people escaping, and so it’s pretty traumatic,” former Paradise mayor Woody Culleton told local television news reporters in June, after seeing the film debut at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. “Once you get beyond that, it’s really the story about how you come back from total devastation, total’s the resiliency of our community. Ron did a really good job of showing that side of our community.”

Howard’s documentary, which is already generating Oscar buzz, follows the release in November 2019 of Fire in Paradise, a 40-minute Netflix documentary, as well as two previously released PBS documentaries. Learn more about Rebuilding Paradise and how to watch it at

Quincy, MA
NFPA restructures Regional Ops division

NFPA announced in July a restructuring of its United States Regional Operations division, including the addition of two staff members who have been moved from another NFPA division and the removal of one staff member who is taking on new duties for NFPA.

“These changes give our stakeholders across the United States a single point of contact for assistance with using NFPA resources to keep their communities safe,” said Ray Bizal, who heads Regional Operations.

Under the new structure, Bizal will serve as regional director for California and Oregon; Greg Cade for Delaware, Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Washington, DC; Robby Dawson for Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee; Bob Duval for Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont; Meredith Hawes for Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin; Gary Honold for Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Washington; Kelly Ransdell for Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Texas; and Bob Sullivan for Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming.

Formerly a regional director of seven states, Russ Sanders will focus his efforts on the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association.

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images