$25 million fire calls building codes into question

From Monday's Globe and Mail
July 23, 2007 at 7:36 AM EDT

CALGARY — Canada needs far tougher building codes, Edmonton's fire department chief said yesterday after a fire torched a large condominium under construction and nine other homes in Edmonton over the weekend, causing an estimated $25-million in damage.

"There needs to be a whole change in philosophy for building codes," Chief Randy Wolseysaid in an interview, explaining that flammable material, such as vinyl siding, helps fires to spread quickly.

Mr. Wolsey called for immediate, interim changes to the country's building codes, particularly in Alberta, where a massive building boom is creating suburb after suburb of homes that he says are less safe than they appear.

The giant fire in south Edmonton began Saturday just after 5 a.m., first sparked by a yet unknown cause in a 149-unit wood frame condominium that was unfinished and unoccupied. The blaze quickly jumped to neighbouring residences, razing nine duplexes and leaving 18 families homeless. It also caused severe damage to 38 other duplexes, and exterior damage - such as melted vinyl siding - to an additional 30. 

About 500 people were evacuated, but no one was injured. About 20 fire trucks and 75 firefighters fought the blaze, an effort for which they received widespread praise for containing the damage. One of the first firefighters on the scene told The Canadian Press of a "thermal fireball" shooting 10 storeys into the early-morning air, showering down sparks.

"It really could have turned into a wildfire. The work the firefighters did was absolutely incredible," Ray Danyluk, Alberta's Housing Minister, said in an interview yesterday.
"Most of all, [what resonates] is just the extent of the devastation. If you look at the disaster area, there is just nothing left."

The nature of residential fires has changed dramatically in the past decade, but building codes in Canada, originating in the years after the Second World War, are unable to deal with the current reality, Mr. Wolsey said.

Building codes have been designed to quell "inside out" fires - blazes that engulf a home's interior before spreading through the walls, and potentially to other residences.
However, because of technological advances, such as lighter, cheaper and more durable building materials, devastating fires now are often "outside in" fires, as was the case in Edmonton. Such fires devour vinyl siding, which melts quickly and conducts the flames further, so they then tear through tar paper and the cheap material made of wood strands and glue found beneath. These materials burn hot, propagating the fire.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many new homes are built extremely close together, allowing flames to hop from house to house.

A simple fix, said Mr. Wolsey, would be to require a fire retardant layer under the siding.
A further issue is the floor trusses used in new buildings, which are lightweight, but burn very quickly, collapsing in less than 10 minutes. Without a floor in a home, it becomes much more difficult to fight a fire. Mr. Wolsey said another simple fix would be requiring such trusses in the basement to be shielded by drywall, which would at least give firefighters more time to work.

"We need the [building] codes people to back away from the Sixties philosophy [of inside out fires] and look at the 21st century," Mr. Wolsey said.

Mr. Wolsey was part of a delegation in March of fire officials in Ottawa, calling on the government to create the post of national fire adviser, a person that would be a liaison between Canada's fire departments and the federal National Research Council, which creates the general template of building codes.

He said there has been no tangible progress made on the delegation's ideas.