By Brenda Flanagan
“We responded to Edgewater with what’s called a strike team,” said East Rutherford Fire Chief Justin Lahullier.
Lahullier rushed to help knock down the flames ravaging Avalon Bay in Edgewater, watched fire devour its lightweight wooden beams like kindling. Firefighters raced to evacuate tenants before the roof collapsed.
“It’s not the best call to get because you know you have less time, and in these residential cases, you have a lot of civilians to protect. But it’s concerning when something happens at a building like that,” Lahullier said.
“It’s toothpick construction. It’s a danger to the people who live there and it’s a danger to the fire service — the guys that have to go in and bring those people out,” said Charles Aughenbaugh.
Aughenbaugh’s past president of New Jersey’s Department Fire Chief Association. He says composite lightweight wood structures often contain truss roof designs and open spaces that can serve as fire conduits, particularly along the attic.
“The fire just ran right through the cockloft — open chases — and it’s lucky that all the people got out,” Aughenbaugh said.
Aughenbaugh says lightweight wood construction’s popular because it’s strong and cheaper to build in an economy desperate for affordable housing. But he says without fire stops to help contain the blaze, flames move rapidly. At a Houston complex still under construction, one worker trapped on a ledge jumped to safety just in time.
“I’m thinking the other fires in New Jersey and throughout the country and that type of toothpick construction that put a lot of people who live there because of the economy involved and the economics involved, that they have to live in those buildings, their lives are at risk, and that’s wrong,” said Aughenbaugh.
Fire officials say the Edgewater complex met all code requirements, and Avalon’s chief construction officer said it used “…wood frame construction, a standard, common and safe construction method for multifamily housing used throughout the United States.” But field tests show lightweight wood construction in a truss roof, for example, collapses in just five minutes while standard, so-called “legacy” construction can withstand flames for more than 20 minutes before so-called flashover.
“Which is the point where everything ignites and the gases all heat up and you have a large fireball,” said NJ Fire Sprinkler Advisory Board David Kurasz.
“We have a third the time to get in there and make progress and slow down the fire spread before we have to think about getting our men out,” said Lahullier.
New Jersey issued more than 82,000 new building permits for multi-family units between 2004 and 2013, but it’s impossible to state how many involved lightweight wood construction. The Edgewater fire’s now fueling a new push for reform, involving enhanced, mandatory sprinklers.
“Once a fire reaches the peak into the actual unprotected sprinkler area that it is spreading extremely quickly — much faster than we’ve seen in years past,” said Kurasz.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski heads the state’s Fire Safety Commission and says the Edgewater fire marks a turning point.
“I think we’re at one of those points, we need to examine the codes we have, the laws we have, whether we need to require more robust suppression, whether we need to examine the permissiveness of using lightweight construction,” Wisniewski said. “Is there a different way of doing this, is there a better way of doing it?”
Many firefighters say that even when large lightweight wood buildings are completely up to code, they still dread having to respond to fire there. They say it’s time to hold hearings on this issue before the next alarm sounds.