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

Fire in the Sky 

Fatal fires in Los Angeles and Minneapolis spark debate over retrofitting existing high-rises with sprinklers

On January 29, a fire broke out on the sixth floor of Barrington Plaza, a 25-story apartment building in West Los Angeles, creating a scene straight out of a disaster movie.

Bright orange flames and acrid black smoke exploded out of the apartment where the fire originated. Just feet away, a barefoot man wearing a tank top and ripped pants climbed out of a window and clung to the structure’s façade six stories above Wilshire Boulevard. Firefighters were able to reach and rescue the man, pictured here, but not everyone was so fortunate. A 19-year-old French exchange student who was injured in the blaze later died at a local hospital.

Built in 1962, Barrington Plaza lacked automatic fire sprinklers. It’s one of 55 high-rises in the city built between 1943 and 1974 that are not sprinklered, the Los Angeles Times reported after the fire, adding that past efforts to retrofit these buildings with sprinklers have been quashed over cost concerns.

The fire was the second in recent months nationwide to raise the issue of sprinklering existing residential high-rises. On November 27, five people died when a fire broke out on the 14th floor of a 29-story public housing apartment building in Minneapolis. The 50-year-old tower was unsprinklered.

In the wake of these fires, government officials in both cities have proposed legislation requiring sprinklers in existing high-rises. Los Angeles City Councilor Mike Bonin called his city’s proposal a “basic, common sense public safety measure.” In Minnesota, State Sen. Kari Dziedzic cosponsored the legislation for her Minneapolis district. “We don’t need anybody else to die,” she told Minnesota Public Radio. “We can do this.” —A.V. 

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