It’s as if the cow has kicked over the lantern in Edmonton these days.
The city is not ablaze, but blocks of it certainly have felt the heat, much to the detriment of the residents of the apartment units at Ashbury Place (105 Street and 97 Avenue) and the eight business owners burnt out of their venues on Whyte Avenue – not to mention the many pets that met an untimely end.
Though the local fire department receives an average of about 100 calls per day, two massive urban fires within three days is not par for the course.
There was a total of less than $23 million in fire damage in Edmonton last year – with private residences sustaining more damage than industrial and commercial sites.
|Jack Dagley, for Business Edge|
|A fire crew tackles the blaze that destroyed business premises on Whyte Avenue.|
The majority of fires are started by arson, with cooking oil and smoker material competing with arson for prominence in residential fires in the city.
Though much has improved since 1959 when 100 emergency call boxes were installed in Edmonton’s downtown area, the threat of fire remains real, particularly in older buildings.
“The City of Edmonton Safe Housing and the fire department solicited the Alberta government . . . saying these buildings that were built before 1972 really didn’t have a fire code or building code to follow,” says Darrell Shermak, manager of Edmonton’s 3D Fire and Safety Ltd.
|Jack Dagley, for Business Edge|
|Firefighters train their hoses on the remains of burned-out buildings on Whyte Avenue.|
The older apartments in the city were generally equipped with fire extinguishers and pull stations in the hallways. Hollow-core doors were popular and heat sensors were not en vogue.
Combine that with highly combustible construction items such as cardboard insulation, tarpaper-backed fibreglass insulation and layers of dust, and it can add up to catastrophe.
Only about a week before Ashbury Place went up in flames, the apartment block’s new owner discussed putting in a new fire alarm system in the building, says Shermak.
“He was going to upgrade the fire alarm system to a better one because he said this building had potential on the outside . . . so he wanted to (improve) the inside.”
3D Fire and Safety sells upgrade packages that include storage-room heat detectors, smoke detectors for the top of stairwells, emergency and exit lights, and the replacement of water with dry chemicals in extinguishers.
An inspector is called to critique a quote to be sure the upgrades meet the requirements for a particular building.
|Kenton Friesen, Business Edge|
|Residents of Ashbury Place watch their home burn, with their possessions and two pet cats|
Shermak guesses that about half the city’s older apartments have been retrofitted to some extent. But it is unrealistic to expect buildings in excess of 30 years old to be brought up to today’s standards, as bringing them even reasonably close can be costly.
“Especially like (Ashbury Place), when you’re only charging $300 or $400 per month rent,” says Shermak. The standard upgrade package usually costs between $8,000 and $30,000 for a three-storey walkup apartment such as Ashbury Place.
Repairs of this nature must be budgeted and implemented over time.
The addition of solid-core doors can easily escalate the pricetag by tens of thousands of dollars, with many of the doorways in older buildings being non-standard in size. The discrepancy requires either custom-made doors or reworking the door jambs, which is not always possible.
The addition of doors at the top of stairwells is another expense often required, at a cost of about $1,500 per door.
In the case of expensive upgrades, owners can be given a number of years to complete the work before any government strong-arming is used, says Shermak. Even with proper upgrades, preventive maintenance of the system is key. Monthly tests of sensors and pull stations are critical.
In new buildings, or complete retrofits, there are panels by the main entrances that inform managers of the functionality of the prevention system.
In Ashbury Place, the extinguishers were working in the building, as was the fire alarm, so this was not a case of neglect. The property manager looking after the place has a history of proactive maintenance.
In the case of the Whyte Avenue fire, it also took much more than extinguishers to hold the flames at bay. Had it not been for a hefty firewall, the blaze could have done much more than the $4 million in damage it caused.
Major residential fires in Calgary’s recent history include the Waterford project in Erlton that was hit with massive fire damage in spring of last year. On Nov. 3, 2002 a two-storey seniors’ residence in Coventry Hills sustained $7 million in fire damage.
Given enough heat, any building product will
disintegrate, proven by the collapse of the World Trade Centre in New York.
While wood stands as the most flammable building material, it is also the Edmonton medium of choice, evidenced by McKay Manor, a wooden walk-up structure under construction directly behind the rubble of what used to be Ashbury Place.
It is doubtful future residents of the new development will give much thought to the vulnerability of the building. It is an acceptable risk, lessened by a vigilant and effective fire fighting team and a constantly evolving fire code.
“You learn from every fire,” says Shermak.