An electrical malfunction has been identified by investigators as the most likely cause of a January fire that displaced two businesses and two residents from a historic Laguna Beach building.
Investigators focused on an outlet powering a heater via an extension cord inside a second-floor office rented by the Mauli Ola Foundation at 1003 S. Coast Hwy. Tristram Miller, 51, of Laguna Beach told investigators he was sleeping in the Foundation’s office and woke up around 1:30 a.m. to smoke and found a plastic Christmas tree and sofa on fire in a adjacent room, according to the fire investigation report.
“With a systematic review of the fire scene, analysis of combustion patterns, physical evidence and witness statements, it is my opinion that the fire started around the electrical outlet,” he said. writes Laguna Beach fire investigator Ian Da Costa.
Further testing of the building’s electrical and wiring system would be needed to confirm a definitive cause, Da Costa added. The Independent obtained a copy of the report through a California Public Records Act request.
Total estimated damage from the January 7 fire was pegged at $500,000 to $650,000. The 1938 Streamline Moderne-style building also has local historic value, having originally served as an Oldsmobile sales and service center, according to the state Historic Resources Inventory.
A man who answered the phone for EW Merritt Farms, the property’s longtime owner, declined to comment for this story.
Hans Hagen, executive director of the Mauli Ola Foundation, recruited professional surfers to teach surfing to children with cystic fibrosis and to visit those in hospital who were too sick to go out. In January, Hagen told the Independent that his foundation’s staff members were largely working from home during the pandemic.
Hagen and Miller did not return calls seeking comment on Tuesday.
The fire shut down Laguna Motor Werks, the family-owned mechanical business operated for nearly 14 years by Laguna Beach residents Vic Hausner and Yi Jing Hausner. Andrew Glinski and Lucas Harral were looking forward to a celebration on February 1 for the third anniversary of the opening of their automotive tinting and detailing business, Relic Protective Films.
Instead, the two groups of business owners have waited almost three months to hear from their owner when they will be allowed to reopen. Private fire investigators surveyed the site on behalf of the insurance companies involved, the owners of the business said.
“The owners want us back and we’re all heading in that direction right now,” said Vic Hausner.
The Hausners live off the money paid out by their insurance policy, but that doesn’t cover the sudden loss of income. They considered moving to a new site, but there are few available properties zoned for auto repair in Laguna Beach.
“People don’t want to have to drive 10 or 20 extra minutes when they’re used to coming here,” Hausner said.
Beyond financial concerns, Hausner also fails to take care of his longtime clients as a small business owner.
“You build your clientele and work with them. It is much more than just a job. You have a lot more skin in the game,” he said.
After losing access to his garage, Glinski was forced to leave the Lake Elsinore home he shared with his menagerie of rescued pigs, dogs, horses, goats and donkeys. He is the proud owner of Levi, a pot-bellied pig rescued by a Laguna Beach police officer after getting lost in 2016.
A Facebook fundraiser he started in the days after the fire raised about $3,000 of his $10,000 goal.
Glinski got by by moving the animals into his girlfriend’s house, which they partially rent out on Airbnb. He took on a few car detailing jobs around town and scored a power-washing gig of a multi-story Emerald Bay home after the recent bushfire.
As a young man, Glinski worked as a mobile car detailer, but the relentless pace of the rush to the next job site became unattractive, especially amid high gas prices. In Laguna Beach, neighbors often bristle when soapy water runs down the driveway.
“When I go to the store and I can’t do anything, it depresses me that day. It’s just such a void,” he said.
The revelation that his business was likely wiped out by a space heater brings mixed emotions, Glinksi said.
“I’m not really mad at anyone. It’s just more exhausting than anything,” he said.
On the night of the fire, Amanda Wilde had settled into her ocean-view studio apartment for the first night after spending about a month in hospital with her daughter Hollis, who was born prematurely at 28 weeks.
The yoga instructor moved to Laguna Beach last September and was busy getting the apartment ready with everything needed to comfortably bring her baby home. She planned to throw away all of her non-metal belongings due to concerns about smoke pollution affecting her newborn baby.
The Laguna Beach Firefighters Association contributed gift cards totaling $1,000, which Wilde said he used to buy a car seat for his Jeep. A GoFundMe campaign to benefit the young family raised about $2,500 of a $5,000 goal.
Wilde said she brought her newborn daughter home from the hospital on Feb. 12 and was graciously taken in by a Laguna Beach landlord until she found permanent housing.
“I wanted to live in the boathouse with the portholes with my daughter for the foreseeable future,” Wilde said. “Not having the specific place I imagined and not having a permanent place to call home was very difficult and exhausting.”
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