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Heidi Shaffer, Published October 13 2010

APARTMENT FIRE: Building was up to code when it was built in 2002

The Galleria On 42nd met all of the building requirements in place when it was constructed in 2002, said Ron Strand, Fargo inspections administrator.

But new updates to the International Building Code the city follows might have helped slow the spread of the fire.

If the 62-unit apartment complex was built today, the 2009 update of the code would require the installation of sprinklers on decks and balconies, Strand said.

The fire appears to have started outside and spread up the building to the attic.

Fargo Fire Marshal Norm Scott said it’s hard to know whether code standards would have made the difference in how the fire spread, but a sprinkler system on the balconies may have slowed it down.

City inspectors visit fire sites to indentify what could have been done differently in its construction, Strand said.

“Looking at our records and listening to the initial comments from the people on site, it appears that the building systems did what they were supposed to do, and they just got overwhelmed,” Strand said.

The building code, updated every three years, assumes a fire starts inside and aim to contain the spread of flames.

“None of our rules say we’re going to worry about that fire out on the lawn, but we are going to worry about them in the kitchen,” Strand said.

The Galleria On 42nd was required to have sprinklers on its first three floors but not in the attic. A commercial building of the same size would require sprinklers in the attic, Strand said.

But sprinklers are designed to slow a fire down, not extinguish it, said Jesse Schmidt, a Fargo Fire Department spokesman.

“They’re meant to knock it down well enough for people to get out,” he said.

When a burning building has structural issues such as a floor or ceiling caving in, water pipes feeding sprinklers can be damaged. That can make the whole system fail, Schmidt said.

“It’s just something that happens when the integrity of the building is lost,” he said.

“Draft stops” are a construction tool used to slow the spread of fires in an attic, Strand said. The structures, usually made of wood, stop air flow from one section of the attic to another.

“Once a fire is in full involvement, draft stops don’t help at all because they’re combustible. All they’re meant to do is slow it down,” Strand said.

Code required the building to contain just one horizontal firewall, which was located between the underground parking garage and the first floor, he said.

The investigation is ongoing, and the cause had not been released Tuesday afternoon.

The burn patterns indicated a ground-up fire to the attic area and the soffit, and it appears that the building’s vinyl siding, which is a plastic, may have sped the spread to the attic, Schuh said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511