Chief: High fire risk calls for sprinklers downtown

Rubble being sprayed down to prevent asbestos risks, city manager says

Posted: Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Juneau's fire chief said downtown Juneau is at high risk for fire and he will propose that old buildings meet new standards with fire-suppression sprinklers.

"I don't know if it's economically feasible," Capital City Fire and Rescue Chief Eric Mohrmann said Tuesday. But he sees it as necessary. "We have a significant fire challenge in the downtown area."

The proposal comes in response to the Aug. 15 fire that destroyed a 108-year-old commercial building at Front and Seward streets.

The fire's rubble remained at the corner Tuesday, with firefighters spraying water on it to keep the dust down.

City Manager Rod Swope said he asked for the spraying to keep down dust as a result of discussions with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Swope said EPA stopped work because of lingering questions about whether asbestos in the rubble poses a hazard.

John Pavitt, air compliance inspector for EPA, said from Anchorage that the agency hasn't "ordered anybody to do anything." He said an inspector looked at debris taken to the landfill, looked at the demolition and had "frank discussions" with city officials and the demolition contractor. He said the matter could be resolved today.

Discussing the fire Tuesday, Mohrmann said the building had sprinklers, but the blaze spread in the dark, empty spaces of the old building where sprinklers didn't reach.

"They do have to be where the fire is," Mohrmann said.

Swope said he has met with Mohrmann about the proposal and said he plans to take a proposal to the Assembly for their consideration.

"It can be a severe cost issue," he said. Studies have been done for past proposals, and in some cases lines would have to run outside the buildings because of renovations that have taken place inside. Property tax relief was looked at as a way to help building owners deal with the expense.

The recent fire has made the issue timely, Swope said. "I think the fire was a reality check for all of us."

At the time of the fire, the building housed 17 businesses and studios, and a small work area rented during the summer by a jewelry artist.

City building inspector Steve Shows said he sees the risk for fire in the historic downtown area. But he said there are socioeconomic factors that come into play with improving fire safety. Many of the occupants in the area are renters and what they have inside the buildings can be of more value than the structures.

Twenty-five years ago, the buildings downtown were seen to be at the end of their economic life, he said. But tourism and the pride people have in their heritage has given the older buildings "more panache."

Etheridge's report placed the value of the burned building at just under $1 million, but that includes the value of the land it sat on, which is placed at $426,200.

Mohrmann estimated the value of the contents of the building was $100,000. He said he had not figured the damage to other downtown businesses caused by the smoke.



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