Fire leaves 18 homeless

City still considering sprinkler rule for downtown buildings

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2007

For years, commercial fisherman Norval Nelson III and friends lived in the eight-unit apartment building at 331 Gastineau Ave.

It was the perfect spot for a bachelor's shack.

"It was a nice comfortable place for watching the boat leave and come back and for watching fireworks," he said. "It was a cool option for someone that wasn't the richest to have a bay view."

It's not any more.

An abandoned cigarette blew out of an ashtray and into a crevice in an outdoor couch Wednesday morning, touching off a fire that gutted the three-story Gastineau Avenue apartment building and left 18 people homeless, Capital City Fire & Rescue investigators said.

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Propelled by gusting winds, the fire quickly decimated the wooden building. There was no sprinkler system to stop it.

"Really, the only way to make these old buildings safe is to install a sprinkler system," Fire Chief Eric Mohrmann said. "A system that was properly installed, with two or more heads at the most, would have easily extinguished the fire."

The smoldering cigarette was left in an ashtray outside the first floor 30 minutes before the fire was reported, at 10:23 a.m., Mohrmann said.

By then, the fire was progressing rapidly up the wooden staircase. The first Capital City unit arrived at 10:28, and the first ladder truck pulled up by 10:32.

The fire has been ruled accidental. No charges have been filed, nor are any anticipated, Mohrmann said. Property damage is still unknown, but the 18 residents lost practically everything they had in the building.

"There's definitely a large group of people that were living there that aren't the wealthiest," Nelson said. "They had enough to make ends meet. I doubt that any of them will recover any personal belongings of that loss. And if they do, it's going to take some time to regain everything.

"It's a shame to live with 10 shirts, and 10 pants and 10 shoes, and get maybe a shirt and a pair of pants and a shoe," he said.

Though belongings were lost, no lives were. One person was treated at Bartlett Regional Hospital for injuries.

As of Thursday afternoon, the Red Cross had doled out $11,000 in immediate response credit cards to the 11 families, or 18 people, who lived in the building, said Shad Engkilterra, Southeast service center director.

The cards pay for food for each person for a week, clothing, shoes, seasonal garments, an allotment for storage containers, bedding and linens.

The Red Cross expects to give out a total of $22,000, he said. It also has a rental assistance program that sometimes provides the first month's rent or enough money to cover a deposit.

Six of the families have been housed at the Driftwood Lodge for at least three days. Five other families found alternative options.

In a situation like this, Engkilterra said, the Red Cross is able to pay for up to five days of lodging.

"After that, I have to say, 'No, you have to pay for this on your own,' which is hard," he said. "The housing situation in Juneau being what it is. I've had some people contact us about (housing options), and the best I can do is pass that information on."

As of 3 p.m. Thursday, Juneau residents had donated $500 to the fire relief effort. Most people had called wondering if they could donate items.

"I've been referring them to St. Vincent or the Salvation Army," Engkilterra said. "We're not equipped to deal with anything other than monetary donations."

The apartment was built in the 1960s. The codes at that time did not mandate sprinkler systems, said Sara Boesser, the city's chief building inspector.

The owner installed a six-inch fire line in 2001 to feed a sprinkler system, but apparently never took the next step.

The city's Public Works Committee is deliberating a retrofit ordinance that would require all buildings in downtown Juneau's "high hazard" core area to install sprinkler systems.

The burned apartment falls within that zone.

The "high hazard" map stretches along Gastineau Avenue to Sixth Street, down Sixth to Main Street, and down Main to the intersection with Egan Drive and Marine Way. It also includes the area by the Mount Roberts Tram and part of Willoughby Avenue.

"The problem we have is a lot of 100-year-old wood-framed construction right next to each other without fire prevention or walls or yards separating them," Mohrmann said. "That can lead to fire jumping from building to building."

At the last Public Works Committee meeting, the staff was directed to develop a financial plan to help subsidize sprinklers, Mohrmann said.

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The ordinance is tabled and under review.

This is the second fire in the last four months caused by wind and a smoldering cigarette.

On Dec. 5, 2006, a stray cigarette was blown into a crevice underneath the exterior siding of a store in Merchants Wharf. Two dozen firefighters needed 45 minutes to extinguish the 4-foot flames.

"Obviously it's always dangerous to leave a cigarette unattended and smoldering in any instance," Mohrmann said.

The couch was likely made of a polyurethane material, Mohrmann said.

"The cloth covering is usually not fire retardant-treated at all," he said. "The polyurethane material itself is very combustible and has a tremendous fuel load. In other words, it burns both very hot and has tremendous energy when it burns."

Fed by oxygen from the wind, the fire quickly spread up the building's exposed wood exterior stairway.

"The fire progressed so rapidly that people weren't aware of it, and we ended up with trapped people who were hanging out and jumping out of windows and getting rescued by bystanders," Mohrmann said.

"Needless to say, it was absolutely dangerous and were very fortunate we didn't have a lot of serious injuries or any fatalities from the fire."

The wind was gusting more than 40 mph at the time. It was fierce enough to rock Mohrmann's truck on its springs, he said.

"One of the things you try to do with the wind is use it to your best advantage," he said. "You go upwind and you attack the fire downwind. That means that instead of the fire pushed toward you, it's pushed away. Unfortunately, we had no access to or access from the interior."

If the wind had been blowing in the opposite direction, there would have been "no way" Capital City could have stopped the blaze, Mohrmann said.

The wind changed a few times as firefighters worked. Smoke traveled into the next-door Channel View Apartments, but the winds never fanned the flames that far.

One good thing about the Channel View Apartments, Mohrmann said, is that is has sprinklers, including some under the building's deck.

"That would have gone a long ways toward preventing damage," he said.



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