Up in smoke

Photo by Elling Lien

The embers from downtown’s latest fire have died down, but the challenge of fire safety in an area of old, tightly packed buildings remains.

Shawn Hayward examines how we could we fire proof the downtown core.

Dwayne Vey says he wasn’t surprised on Aug. 25 when he heard about a major fire on Water Street. Vey has lived downtown for many years and has seen other buildings burn during that time.

“I’m used to that happening downtown,” he says. “It’s always been a fire hazard.”

Fire fighters sprayed Pasta Plus from 5 pm to after midnight before the flames were finally tamed. Two adjoining businesses were damaged, and an upstairs apartment destroyed, leaving two people homeless.

Isolating and extinguishing fires in the older downtown buildings is a difficult task, according to Jack Hickey, deputy fire chief of St. John’s Regional Fire Department.

“There’s an extreme amount of hidden voids,” he says. “You think the fire is out and it breaks out somewhere else.”

The voids are between multiple walls in the older buildings. When a building is renovated, the contractors sometimes build a new wall next to the old one instead of tearing it down, to speed construction.

Fires can hide between the newer and older walls just when fire fighters think the blaze is under control. Hickey says there were three or four different voids between walls in the Pasta Plus building.

Firefighters often cut a hole a foot wide from the front of the building to the back, drawing the fire away from adjoining apartments and businesses. The fire in Pasta Plus was made more difficult to fight because, like the walls, there was an older roof underneath the new one: another layer for the firefighters to break through to let smoke and heat escape the building and prevent the fire from spreading.

In a situation where every second is precious, an extra layer of roofing could mean the destruction of two or more buildings instead of just one.

Access to buildings is another challenge, according to Hickey. Getting to a rear of a tightly-packed block of buildings like the one containing Pasta Plus can be time consuming.

“Downtown where real estate is so valuable, every inch is used up,” he says. “Some of the laneways down there are only three feet wide. Our goal is to get it as quick as we can, because we know in the back of your mind if you don’t get it in within 10-15 minutes, it’s going to be a long night.”

The fire code requires residences to install gyprock that will contain a fire for one hour, and up-to-date electrical equipment to prevent fires from happening. But residential buildings only have to be brought up to code when its sold or renovated, meaning there are buildings downtown today that meet the minimum of decades-old safety requirements.

Businesses are inspected two to three times a year, and Hickey says the fire department issues fines regularly to violators and checks back to make sure they comply with the rules. Despite the regulations, several businesses have burned in the past few years, including the Model Shop, Sports Shop, and Magic Wok restaurant.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary is still investigating the cause of the Pasta Plus fire.

Most downtown business owners called didn’t express worry about the city’s incendiary past.

“We’re fully fireproofed here,” says Jerry Haynes, part-owner of Portobello’s restaurant. “Our building is brick and attached to a hotel and I’m sure they’re fire sprinklered also. If a fire does break out I think it’ll be extinguished pretty quick.”

Hickey says people buying an older home or condominium downtown should make sure their electrical system is modernized. Glass tubes with wiring inside them are obsolete and should be replaced because they are a fire hazard.

“If I bought a structure that is 30 or 40 years old, I’d get an electrician to make sure the wiring was up to code before I’d even look at buying it,” he says.

In a densely-developed place like downtown the precautions your neighbours take are as important as your own. Hickey says smoke detectors can detect smoke coming from a neighbours home if a major fire is happening.

“Smoke alarms are the first line of defence,” he says. “If a fire starts in a building three doors down, and all the roofs are connected, the smoke will creep into your home, but at least if you have a smoke alarm you can get out safely.”

Kirk DeHann, a salesman at Mic Mac Fire Safety, said having fire escapes that are sturdy and aren’t blocked by debris is very important.

St. John’s has a much longer history with fire. In 1846 a fire started on George Street and spread east down Water Street and Duckworth Street, destroying the Anglican cathedral and the home of Robert Prowse.

In 1892 an even more destructive fire began on Freshwater Road and levelled most of the city. Many of the heritage buildings we have today were built shortly after the fire.

The new building at 248 Water Street where Pasta Plus used to stand will be safer than the old one. Like in nature, sometimes fire is needed to destroy the old make room for something new.

“That section of town will go back up to code this time because it’ll be inspected and they’ll make sure there won’t be two walls, or three walls,” says Hickey.