Construction projects are going up in flames across North America. At dawn on May 15, 2016, fire swept through a condo development under construction in White Rock, B.C., displacing more than 100 nearby residents. On July 8, 2017, in Kelowna, B.C., another condo development under construction collapsed in flames, forcing the evacuation of 176 nearby homes.
- March 16, 2017: Raleigh, NC. 241 units. Value: $50 million.
- April 24, 2017: College Park, MD. 250 units. $39 million damage.
- May 13, 2017: Emeryville, CA (Oakland). 105 units. Second fire at the site in a year. Arson suspected.
- July 7, 2017: Oakland, CA. 225 units. 700 – 900 nearby residents displaced.
- July 23, 2017: Waltham, MA (Boston), 264 units. $110 million damage.
Typically, these fires involved six or seven-storey condo developments, with wood-frame construction over concrete-and-steel bases. The suspected causes have ranged from youths lighting fireworks to arsonists to workers doing hot work.
In the wake of these massive fires, firefighters are warning of the risks of wood construction. While wood is more economical than concrete, it is also more vulnerable to fire before construction is completed. In jurisdictions which don’t require compartmentalized construction, fires spread quickly through open wood-frame structures. Moreover, even when sprinkler systems and valves have been installed, most jurisdictions do not require them to be active until close to occupancy.
So, how do you prevent fires at wood-frame construction projects and minimize any damage? As with all fire prevention, it starts with a fire safety plan. If fire protection systems are in place, activate them. In the Maryland fire, closed valves in the standpipes made it difficult for firefighters to deliver water. In the Kelowna fire, sprinklers had been installed, but not turned on.
At the Emeryville project, the developer installed 14 surveillance cameras and two security guards after the first time the development burned down. It wasn’t enough. An arsonist started another fire in the same place, at the same point during construction—with the same results. A wood-frame building under construction will likely be lost if you do not respond within three to four minutes.
So, from a security perspective, what are your best options? Read our next blog to find out.
Massive fire in White Rock deliberately set: RCMP. Global News, May 25, 2016.
176 homes evacuated after fire destroys condo building under construction in Kelowna, B.C. CBC News B.C. July 8, 2017.
Huge fire engulfs apartment building under construction. Mercury Nwes, March 16, 2017.
Three-alarm fire breaks out at College Park construction site. Washington Post, April 24, 2017
Emeryville apartment complex under construction destroyed by fire for second time. East Bay Times, May 13, 2017.
Federal investigators join search for cause in massive Oakland fire. SFGate, July 7, 2017.
Investigation into cause of Waltham blaze. NECN, July 23, 2017. 
Massive fire burns apartments under construction near Oakland’s Lake Merritt. CBS San Francisco, July 7, 2017.
Construction site met code before fire, but tougher measures may be pending. Boston Globe, July 27, 2017.
Fire Chief: closed valves, limited access, and size and type of construction hindered response to 5-alarm College Park fire. NBC Washington, August 18, 2017.
Wood construction upping fire risks. Realtor Mag (National Association of Realtors], August 18, 2017.
Note: This blog discusses general safety and security topics. It is not intended to provide comprehensive advice or guidance. In all matters of personal safety and security, we encourage readers to research topics in depth and consult a security professional about specific concerns.