06 July 2010

Wisconsin Fire Dept: New Building Materials Accelerate Fire Damage

Wisconsin State Journal

A Saturday fire that destroyed a $337,000 home on Madison's Far East Side burned rapidly because of lightweight construction that is now the industry standard but increases the risk to occupants and firefighters in a fire, according to the Madison Fire Department.

The fire at 6913 Stockbridge Drive underscores concerns firefighters have with roofs and floors made from lightweight, prefabricated materials, said Madison Fire Lt. Dave Peterson.

"They're good products that cost less, but when fire is touching them, they fail at a much-faster rate than older lumber," he said.

Home builders say the products meet or surpass state building codes and that houses built today are safer than ever before.

When fire crews arrived Saturday, the first floor already was collapsing. Firefighters deemed the house structurally unsafe and fought the fire from the outside.

"When a first floor collapses, we could fall right into the fire with no way to get out," Peterson said.

The home, built in 2004, was a total loss, according to the fire department.

Two occupants who were home escaped unharmed. Smoke alarms had sounded, according to the fire department.

The cause of the fire was under investigation Wednesday. The fire department received the call at 2:53 p.m. and arrived nine minutes later, said Bernadette Galvez, a fire department spokeswoman.

Ideally, crews try to get to fires within four to six minutes, she said. She did not know why it took longer but noted the home is in a newer subdivision on the city's edge.

Almost all new homes in Dane County in the last 15 years have been built using lightweight construction, Peterson said. Floors today generally are made of pieces of wood that are of a smaller dimension than decades ago, with the webbing in between made of glued-together particle board, he said.

The materials can hold the same weight but burn quicker because they are less dense, Peterson said. "We're not looking to get rid of these things or attack the building industry," he said. "We just want to do some things to protect occupants and firefighters."

Firefighters would like to see the state building code changed to require sprinkler systems in single-family homes, said Ed Ruckriegel, city fire marshal. The cost would be about $2,500 for a 2,000-square-foot home, he said.

Barring that change, another option would be to require a drywall enclosure around flooring systems to slow a fire's spread. "Drywall is a huge insulator for fire, and it's a cheap and easy fix," he said.

Ken Bowers, owner of Bowers Construction in Madison, which built the Stockbridge Drive house, said those are "good ideas, but it comes down to affordability and what people are willing to pay." The house was built to code and passed a city of Madison inspection, he said.

Abe Degnan, president of Degnan Design Builders in DeForest and president of the Madison Area Builders Association, said manufactured materials are stronger than solid wood and meet standards for "green" construction. They are constructed out of fast-growing trees planted specifically for that purpose, as opposed to harvesting old-growth forests, he said.

With smoke detectors and products such as fire-rated doors, "there is rarely any loss of life in homes built under modern building codes," Degnan said.

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