BOSTON, Mass. - A 6-alarm fire that destroyed an under construction Dorchester apartment building was caused by an improperly installed exhaust pipe, said the Boston fire commissioner
The fire, which happened on June 28, started in the afternoon following an all day test of the emergency generator. Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn said it was being tested so an inspection the following day.
Finn said the exhaust pipe was between the top floor and the roof, and it was located too closely to combustibles. There is supposed to be a 12-inch clearance, but it was more like three inches, said Finn.
One of the main issues was the delay in notification of the fire, said Finn. He said the sprinkler system was installed but not turned on; legally it did not need to be.
"We are going to be working closely..to better protect these buildings when they are in their most vulnerable state. Their most vulnerable state is when they are under construction," said Finn.
Boston Inspectional Services Commissioner William Christopher said in buildings like these, the garage and first floor are not combustible, while the rest of it is a wood frame.
"This is an example of something we don't want to have happen again," said he said.
On Sunday, an apartment building under construction went up in flames Sunday morning. It was also a wood frame.
Finn said they are still investigating the fire, but they are confident in the findings thus far.
The city’s fire commissioner blasted workers for taking 90 minutes to report the June 28 fire that destroyed a six-story building in Dorchester and said city officials are working on new construction safety standards — particularly those with highly flammable wood frames.
“It’s a grave concern. It’s a total breakdown on the construction site itself. There should be no delay in the response. It’s a very concerning issue for me,” fire Commissioner Joseph Finn said yesterday of workers at 1971-1979 Dorchester Ave. who smelled smoke but waited an hour and a half to call the Fire Department.
Finn and Inspectional Services Commissioner Buddy Christopher described the delay at a press conference yesterday about the fire that tore through the six-story Treadmark building that was set for occupancy within weeks.
Finn said the fire began in the space between the sixth floor and the roof when hot exhaust piping from a generator that was being tested ignited combustible material.
That exhaust pipe was supposed to be 12 inches away from any combustible material but was likely only three inches away, Finn said. Christopher said ISD inspectors likely would have caught the problem had they completed an inspection scheduled for the day after the fire. He added he said he did not think developers in Boston’s housing boom were cutting corners.
“We have the absolute faith in our construction industry here in Boston,” Christopher said. “We do not think this is a systemic problem across the city.”
The building had a working sprinkler system at the time of the fire, but it was not turned on, Finn said — which is allowed under state building code that only requires sprinklers be on after a building gets its certificate of occupancy. Finn said that hampered fighting the fire, but the main concern was that workers had smelled smoke and saw haze at 1 p.m. and didn’t call BFD until 2:30 p.m.
“The No. 1 problem was the delay in notification,” Finn said. “We have thermal imaging cameras, we could’ve found this fire in a short amount of time.”
A spokeswoman for Cranshaw Construction, the building’s general contractor, did not immediately return request for comment.
The building’s mostly wood structure is allowed under the International Building Code, but Christopher said ISD and BFD officials will review procedures for examining wood buildings that are under construction and most likely to catch fire.
“At this point we’re not planning to change the building code or anything like that, this is more about the process during construction, when the building is in its most unprotected state,” Christopher said.
The Boston building and fire commissioners Wednesday promised to look for ways to make large wood-frame buildings safer during construction, a time when they said the buildings are most vulnerable to fire.
Specifically, Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn said lightweight engineered wood, which was used in the Dorchester Avenue apartment building that caught fire on June 28, poses a hazard to firefighters.
“I have concerns about the lightweight construction, as we’ve just witnessed,” Finn said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “Fire in these type of buildings develop very rapidly. They’re very dangerous when they do develop like that.”
Workers smelled smoke in the apartment building around 1 p.m. on June 28, just after returning from lunch, Finn said. They didn’t call the Fire Department until 2:30, giving the fire a big head start.
By the time firefighters arrived, the roof was on the verge of collapse.
“Nine minutes upon arrival of our companies and that roof collapsed on the southwest corner of the building, the point of origin,” Finn said.
Finn and Inspectional Services Commissioner William Christopher Jr. said members of their departments will meet to come up with recommendations to make the building process safer, as larger and taller wood-frame structures continue to spring up in and all around Boston.
Both Finn and Christopher stressed that wood structures, including those using lightweight engineered wood, are safe once fire suppression systems, like sprinklers and fire-rated drywall, are in place. But construction poses different risks because those systems are not in place, and exposed wood has plenty of oxygen available to burn.
Christopher said he does not intend to push for a change to the building code to prevent certain materials from being used or to reduce the square-footage of buildings that can be constructed with wood.
“This is more about the process during construction when the building is in its most unprotected state,” he said.
Christopher said the structure met the required building codes. The sprinkler system was operational, but not yet activated. It was scheduled for a final inspection on June 29, the next day. During that inspection, the sprinklers would have been pressurized and tested.
The NBC Boston Investigators have been looking into lightweight engineered wood for a month, prompted by that Dorchester fire.
The material is made like plywood, where small wood chips are glued and pressed together. Beams are made with several layers of that pressed together. I-beams are comprised of plywood between two runners of dimensional lumber.
Expert tests and several studies show that the plywood portion of the I-beams, which are used in the floor and ceiling structure, burn through three times faster than dimensional lumber. That leads to a faster structural failure than floors and ceilings supported by dimensional lumber.
BOSTON (CBS) – The massive fire at the Treadmark building in the Ashmont section of Dorchester is raising questions about a commonly-used building material.
Construction was nearing completion on the mixed-use condominium and affordable housing project when flames broke out Wednesday afternoon, causing millions of dollars in damage.
While the official cause of the fire will have to wait until the investigation is complete, the Boston Fire Department told reporters lightweight construction materials made fighting the fire difficult because they burn more quickly.
Boston Firefighters battle large blaze on Dorchester Ave. (WBZ-TV)
“The dimension of the lumber is different,” BFD Commissioner Joseph Finn said. “Think about if you are lighting a fire in a fireplace, the smaller stuff starts first, the larger stuff takes time to burn.”
Finn was talking about engineered I-beams. Builders love them because they are strong and less expensive than solid wood.
However, the speed at which they burn has become an ongoing issue for firefighters.
Back in 2015, with the help of the Fire Chief’s Association in New Hampshire, the I-Team observed an unscientific experiment to show the differences in the burn rates.
Treadmark building damaged by fire in Dorchester (WBZ-TV)
Firefighters set up an I-beam next to a solid beam and set them on fire.
Within minutes, the I-beam was significantly compromised while the solid piece remained stable. After ten minutes, the I-beam burned through and started to sag under the weight of a cinderblock sitting on top.
“That floor would have collapsed by now, had there been a human being on that floor,” explained NH State Fire Marshal William Degnan.
The construction material has been a contributing factor in several other massive fires around the country.
In North Carolina earlier this year, an apartment complex under construction went up in flames. And in 2015, an occupied apartment complex in New Jersey also suffered extensive fire damage.
Despite these instances, the cheaper materials are allowed under Massachusetts and international building codes. However, they can’t be used in buildings over six stories.
Builders are also using these beams in home construction, which can pose a danger for firefighters.
Several Agawam firefighters got out of one burning home just in the nick of time under a sagging floor.
“Probably one of the closest calls that we have ever encountered,” Chief Alan Sirois told the I-Team in 2015. “The potential for loss of life was very high.”
Code regulations in Massachusetts now require I-beams to be covered in sheet rock to increase the burn rate and give firefighters more time.
Finn told reporters the beams in the Dorchester Avenue fire were covered, but still remarked at how quickly the flames spread.
“Within nine minutes of our first arriving companies, the roof started to sag and cave in,” he said.
Finn did say buildings like this are safe as long as sprinklers and other fire protection systems are in working order. Investigators are trying to determine whether the sprinklers in the Treadmark building were turned off or didn’t function properly.