Last week’s deadly fire in Uptown is a tragic reminder of the risks at active construction sites, but it’s not necessarily a sign that these kinds of incidents will be commonplace in a city with so many projects in development.
Eric Holt, assistant professor of construction management at the University of Denver, said construction sites like the one at 1833 Emerson St. pose certain “inherent risks.” While the odds of such incidents are technically higher because there are more development sites, it doesn’t necessarily mean fires at construction sites will be more common in Denver.
“I don’t think there’s a greater risk just because we have more of them,” Holt said. “It’s part of the process of building a light wooden structure…(the) only additional risk is the sheer number, but that’s normal.”
The fire at the at the five-story residential project left two people dead. They had not been identified as of Monday.
Holt said the Emerson Street building was in a vulnerable phase of construction. It contained an exposed wood frame and likely had few deterrents like drywall or sprinklers that are later installed to enhance its fire safety.
“It’s a lumberyard that’s four stories high,” Holt said. “It’s basically an open lumberyard at that point.”
Kevin Hammons is a fire and emergency response lecturer at Metro State University and a former fire marshal and deputy fire chief in Aurora. He said that despite Denver’s growth, there shouldn’t be too many worries about an increase in these kinds of fires. He sees the chances similarly to Holt: A city with 1,000 construction sites will statistically have more than one with 100.
“It’s nothing that should be a major concern for the public,” Hammons said, adding this is not necessarily a cause for alarm. “It does draw attention and resources to the problem when that happens.”
Hammons also said that construction sites are more vulnerable to fires since features that help compartmentalize fires are not yet up. This also includes floors and stairwells that may not be closed in.
The exposed building created what Holt called a “mini tornado” above it as the flames consumed oxygen and lifted debris into the air, where pieces of charred material carried thousands of feet away from the fire. Holt said he wasn’t surprised to hear about pieces ending up far from the location.
It also explains the destruction the fire wreaked on nearby property. Cars weren’t just charred; as Denver Police highlighted in photos on Twitter, they were destroyed enough to create a Chernobyl-like scene.
“You’ve got so much energy going through that building in the form of heat and fire,” Holt said. “The heat melts buildings next door … it’s just indicative of the size and the amount of material that’s burning so quickly. It’s a very bad situation.”
Fatal construction site fires are exceedingly rare in the United States.
A report published in April 2017 by the National Fire Protection Association said fire departments across the country responded to an average of 3,750 fires in structures under construction every year between 2010 and 2014 (for context, NFPA says there were 1.34 million fires reported overall in the U.S. in 2016).
However, just five civilian deaths and 51 civilian injuries were linked to fires in structures under construction during that span, according to the report. The report noted that cooking equipment was the leading cause (27 percent) of fires in structures under construction. The city said Monday in a release that the cause of the fire is still unknown: “The Denver Fire Department, the Denver Police Department and OSHA are investigating it, and we are supporting their work in any way we can.”
Hammons said he saw a number of construction fires during his 35-plus years of experience, but they were mostly outliers.
“What you saw in Denver last week is not very common,” Hammons said.
Denver Fire Department spokesman Greg Pixley agreed with one of the report’s observations. He said Friday that construction site fires are rare, at least in the Denver Metro Area. There was another fire at a construction site in Glendale in 2013 that also rose to a third-alarm blaze. He said that despite the “tremendous growth” in development in Denver, there haven’t been many fires of this magnitude.
“If they’re following permit process and following industry standards, it’s less likely to happen,” Pixley said. “If people are doing what they’re supposed to do, the right way, then there’s no issue.”