IN THE EARLY-MORNING HOURS of December 8, a massive fire at a seven-story wood-framed apartment complex under construction in downtown Los Angeles lit up the sky, sending smoke and flames high enough to be seen for miles. An entire city block burned hot enough to damage nearby buildings: windows shattered, computers melted, and sprinklers were triggered. The fire melted an exit sign hanging over the nearby 110 freeway, which sustained an estimated $1.5 million in damage. The apartment complex, valued at about $10 million, was a total loss.
Despite the spectacle and national headlines, the fire wasn’t even close to the costliest residential construction fire this year. In May, a $40 million apartment complex under construction in San Francisco was destroyed by fire. A $50 million, 396-unit apartment complex under construction in Houston burned in March. That same month, flames leveled a landmark, 245,000-square-foot building in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, which was in the midst of being converted into 120 apartments. In April, fire destroyed a $15 million, 150-apartment complex in Maryland.
While there are no firm numbers yet, the anecdotal evidence suggests that 2014 was a very bad year for fire-related property loss at residential construction sites. According to an NFPA report released in July, “Fires in Residential Properties Under Construction or Undergoing Major Renovation Other Than One- Or Two-Family Homes,” from 2007 through 2011 there was an annual average of 830 fires in residential buildings under construction, excluding one- and two-family homes, causing an average of $56 million in direct property damage per year. That’s roughly the loss of the Houston apartment complex alone. Over those same years, there were an estimated 400 fires annually in large residential buildings undergoing major renovation, causing an average of $17 million in direct property loss per year.
At least two efforts are underway to combat the problem of residential construction fires. In July, the International Code Council held a workshop in Washington, D.C., including NFPA staff and members, to explore if changes or updates to existing code were needed. In October, partly in response to this year’s large residential construction fires, the American Wood Council (AWC) began working with industry groups and experts to create three detailed technical manuals—one each for construction supervisors, construction workers, and the fire service. The manuals, coupled with DVDs and online presentations, will offer each group a comprehensive guide to best practices and codes and standards to prevent residential construction fires. The materials, expected for release in February, are based on existing codes and standards, including 10 NFPA standards, most prominently NFPA 241, Safeguarding Construction, Alteration, and Demolition Operations, and NFPA 1620, Incident Planning.
“There’s not a lot of original work here—it’s mostly extracting existing codes and best practices and putting them in context,” said Ronny J. Coleman, a former California state fire marshal, who has been working with AWC on assembling the document. “As we completed the literature search, we didn’t find much suggesting that we need to increase regulations. But we found many sources saying we need to do a better job enforcing what is already on the books. The purpose of this project is to raise the level of awareness so people do what the regulations say.”
Increasing awareness and use of these standards is critical, stakeholders say, because as the massive fires of the past year suggest, construction sites can pose a high risk of fire.
“You have people running all over a building, cutting and welding and doing all sorts of things,” said Robert Duval, the New England regional director and senior fire investigator at NFPA. “Heat sources are all over, from welding rigs, tar kettles, molten asphalt, fired propane—at this time of year in northern parts of the country, some crews use propane heaters to keep their workers warm.”
Investigators in Los Angeles have ruled that arson is the probable cause of that fire, while the San Francisco and Houston fires appear to be the result of heat or sparks from welding or other equipment. According to the NFPA report, the leading equipment causes of construction fires are cooking equipment (40 percent), followed by heating equipment (29 percent). Other causes include torch, burner, or soldering iron (6 percent); electrical and lighting equipment (6 percent); and shop tools and industrial equipment (5 percent).
When procedures are not followed, things can turn dangerous quickly. Rapid escalation is a common problem with these fires, Duval said, especially in residential buildings, where wood is often a primary material.
“In these wood-framed buildings under construction, the wood is often exposed—it’s like a pile of pallets, and fire spreads very rapidly,” Duval said. “Buildings under construction are also often wide open with no masonry, walls, gypsum board, or partitions. It creates its own air draft and fire just goes with nothing to stop it.”
Ongoing building inspections are critical in preventing and preparing for construction fires, said Duval, who trains authorities having jurisdiction (AHJs) on the issue.
“The message I try to convey is that construction sites change weekly—the access changes, the fire protection changes, so AHJs need get out and visit and make sure the sites are following NFPA 241,” he said. “If you get to sites and inspect them, you know where the hazards are, you know the layout of the site, and you can work with construction companies to provide what the fire department needs at the site.”
In 2007, inspection lapses led to the deaths of two New York City firefighters in the Deutsche Bank fire, which occurred in a building, damaged in the 9/11 attacks, undergoing abatement and demolition work. The incident led the city to revamp the way it prioritizes and schedules building inspections, as detailed in “Data Driven,” the cover story in the November/December 2014 issue of NFPA Journal.
While New York conducted a detailed investigation after the Deutsche Bank fire, it’s often hard to know how many fires could have been prevented with more rigorous or regular inspections or more careful adherence to NFPA 241, Duval said. Not taking adequate safety precautions has significant consequences, though; from 2007 through 2011, an average of 130 firefighters and 20 civilians were injured each year in fires at residential buildings under construction or renovation.
“We actually do a pretty good job designing mitigation into buildings,” Coleman said. “But when there is a fire in a building that doesn’t yet have any of those systems in place, the building and firefighters are vulnerable.”