The downtown apartment complex that was engulfed by a fire last week has long been considered a high-risk building by the fire department, according to fire officials.
The lack of a sprinkler system, numerous void spaces in its construction and poor exterior access are some of the factors that make the historic 95-year-old Gastineau Apartments building a dangerous “target hazard” in terms of firefighting, says the fire department’s chief fire training officer, Nathan Young.
“This is an extremely dangerous building,” Young said in an interview at his office in the downtown Juneau fire station on Friday. “If you were to rate the severity of danger in a building, lets say from one to 10, this is an 11, when you look at firefighting in general.”
The building is not alone in its status as a dangerous building, Young says. Multiple buildings located in the downtown historic area are considered target hazards, especially given their close proximity to one another and because they are not required to have a sprinkler system.
CBJ Building Codes Official Charlie Ford said in an interview that buildings are subjected to codes that are in place at the time the buildings are constructed. The Gastineau Apartments were built in 1917 before codes were in place, which means it, and other older buildings in town, are not required by the International Building Code to have sprinklers.
In the past, the fire department has recommended retrofitting the buildings, but Young said those recommendations were usually met with resistance due to the cost involved.
“I don’t believe it’s been met with a lot of support because it’s very costly to do, but then again you can see the cost of not having a sprinkler system,” Young said.
It could have made a difference in this case, Young said. The cause of the fire is undetermined and still under investigation, but the fire marshal says it’s highly likely it began with an unattended candle in one of the apartments on the top fourth floor.
“If this was a sprinklered building with a properly operating sprinkler system, this would have been a very small fire that would have been put out in minutes,” Young said. “And nobody would have been displaced, and this building people would be living in it today.”
No injuries or fatalities were reported in the fire, which blazed for nine hours into Tuesday morning, but it did displace the 50 or so residents. The building has since been condemned until it is safe to re-enter, leaving the residents without housing and most of their personal possessions destroyed by either flames or by extensive smoke and water damage. There are also two commercial businesses on its ground floor.
Young added, “A sprinkler system will confine, let’s say a mattress fire or a cooking fire, to its room of origin, and it will protect everybody in the building and their contents, and we have numerous buildings like this downtown that aren’t protected.”
Another concern is that fire can spread undetected in the void spaces, of which the Gastineau Apartments has many since it has been renovated many times over the years. Originally a three-story hotel, a fourth floor and a building on the posterior side of the building, making it into an H-shape, were added later in the 1960s.
“It’s been added on to and renovated so many different times that there are numerous void spaces which the fire can get into and run uncontrolled, and you don’t even know it until it pops up in a completely different part of the building,” Young said.
Aware of the potential danger, fire officers conducted a walk-through of the buildings with maintenance personnel exactly one week prior to the fire in order to re-familiarize themselves with its unique layout and void spaces.
The timing was coincidental, but Young said it was helpful because it made firefighters extra aware as they were fighting the fire.
“Everyone has recognized that in the past,” Young said, “but actually getting through and seeing how many void spaces there are that the fire can run undetected and pop up in places that will literally kill our firemen, it was really in the forefront of everyone’s mind.”
One thing the Gastineau Apartments did have going for it were fire doors in the hallway that separated the original front building and the second back building. The fire doors automatically closed when the fire alarm sounded at about 5 p.m.
“These were actually functioning, so this is why you can see the back side of the ‘H’ is untouched,” Young said. “There’s absolutely no fire damage, other than there’s smoke and water that got in there. But because all these fire doors were closed, the rest of the building is standing. If the fire doors weren’t there or they hadn’t been functioning, this entire building would have burned, which would have been horrifically scary.”
Fire Marshal Daniel Jager said in an interview that the Gastineau Apartments was not in violation during its last fire department inspection, which was conducted recently. Jager said there have been violations in the past.
The Empire could not obtain documentation of the past violations since the fire department is in the process of updating its filing system, Jager said. The deputy fire marshal in charge of that project was not in the office this week, Jager said.
Firefighters managed to contain the fire to the fourth-floor of the building, but Young says it was difficult to extinguish in part because the fire department did not have the necessary type of fire truck.
“We couldn’t get water underneath the roof where it was burning,” Young said, noting firefighters could blast water into the third-story and below windows and onto the collapsing roof.
Young said what the effort required was a ladder truck with an aerial platform on the end of the ladder. It has more mobility than the “straight stick” ladder trucks the fire department has now, Young said. It’s also safer than what the fire department has, Young said.
“A platform, you can put multiple guys in here, and you can pump twice the water that this can, and you have much better reach and you can get down, actually get up and over it to penetrate down into (the fourth floor of the building),” Young said. “That’s what was needed here, but we didn’t have it.”
Young says the fire department has been actively trying to purchase an aerial platform ladder truck for the past year and a half without success. It would cost about a million and a half dollars.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at 523-2263 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.