Blaze raises many concerns, says columnist

If you measure the fire purely by the number of dwellings or businesses it destroyed, it was an inferno more damaging than anything Edmonton or Calgary has ever seen.

The fire affected more than 250 occupied residences. It displaced 270 people. It severely damaged seven huge buildings – including two complexes that have since been demolished – in an area covering roughly four city blocks. It severely damaged or destroyed 70 residences (not including dozens that were under construction).

It may well rate as the biggest fire (not counting forest or grass fires) in Alberta’s history.

Mike Sturk, Business Edge
The May 30 Erlton fire caused an estimated $60 million in dmages when dozens of condos were razed in Calgary.

And if history is anything to go by, this recent blaze is going to lead to new, stricter (think more expensive) regulations provincewide.

In fact, in the light (and heat) of this conflagration, it would be irresponsible of our politicians and bureaucrats not to see it as a warning that current building codes are inadequate.

I’m referring, of course, to the May 30 Erlton fire, named after the community it devastated. It started in a posh condo complex under construction near the Calgary Stampede grounds. Once under way, the blaze spread quickly to neighbouring, occupied dwellings.

Similar high-end, high-density complexes are sprouting up all over Alberta. They are ideal for the hard-working professional and the retired traveller. But they often push the limits of the building codes, which allow up to four storeys of residential wood-frame construction, shake roofs, etc.

On May 30, the dangers of those current codes became clear.

Sparked when a worker using a propane torch accidentally lit some nearby wood, the fire spread with alarming rapidity.

It was lucky no one was killed.

Within a matter of minutes, flames were shooting eight storeys into the clear, mid-day sky, sending burning debris across the street, where a series of tony row houses (“$499,000 and up”) called River Run Estates, caught fire, starting with their shake roofs.

The high-density condominiums that shared the block with the construction site were even worse off, and one of those buildings has been flattened. The rest experienced dramatic, but possibly repairable, damage. In one case, an entire wing of a building burned off.

The only time Calgary (Edmonton never has) experienced such a contagious conflagration (in 1886, 14 businesses were razed), it prompted the city to replace wood-frame construction with sandstone for new commercial buildings downtown, and it brought much-needed upgrades to the fire brigade.

In a similar way, the Erlton fire should be a catalyst for change and a warning to Albertans regarding the risks of residential “stick” construction.

There appears to have been four primary human factors that contributed to this fire (apart from the worker whose torch sparked it all). These are, in order of magnitude: the (1) hazards inherent in any construction site, (2) flammable building materials, (3) growing density of housing, and (4) lack of foresight on the part of regulators, city planners, builders and architects. Each of these contributing factors needs to be addressed.

None of these factors could be solely blamed for the extent of the damage. But together, they packed a powerful punch. In the half-dozen interviews I conducted for this column, there was a consensus that stricter regulations, enforcement and foresight are on their way – in addition to higher prices for the next generation of condominiums, and higher insurance premiums for the old generation.

Capt. John Conley of the Calgary Fire Department, speaking about safety on construction sites, said: “If you are using cutting torches, or propane torches, that type of thing, there are already safety measures in place. You have to have dry-chem extinguishers in the immediate vicinity, for example. There are a lot of safety features that are in the code bylaw. It’s just a matter of educating some of the trades to make sure they comply with those.”

Dave Smith, executive director of the Calgary Construction Association, added: “Building with poured-in-place, concrete, pre-cast, tilt-up, brick-block construction is slightly more expensive, but when you are looking at units that cost $200,000 plus, it may add one or two per cent to the unit.

“Looking at what happened to that structure in Erlton, if it was built by materials other than stick frame for a four-storey walk-up, I think that you would have seen a significant difference in the damage.

“I think there is going to be a new train of thought when it comes to designing those four-storey, multi-family units.”

Mark Terrill, managing partner of the Calgary office of Jones Brown Associates, an insurance brokerage firm involved in insuring much of the area damaged in the fire, said:

“From the insurance company’s perspective, I don’t think there is any question at all that they will have to relook at their risk-selection basis where you have huge concentrations of frame values.

“They now know what can happen. They may have often wondered, but now they know absolutely that this situation can recur. And I can name you, with a little effort, eight or 10 communities that look a lot like Erlton does, where you have clustered condominiums built over three or four or five years.”

So we’ll have to grin and bear it when the new regulations and prices hit us. While we pay from the pocketbook, we should thank heaven that no one paid with their lives.

If architects, builders, regulators, planners and even the media had the foresight to criticize such projects and thoroughly scrutinize the related issues, I’d be confident it would never happen again.

For now, I’m not.