CityPlace blaze raises questions about wood-framed construction

Drive around the Kansas City area and they’re hard to miss: the wood-framed apartment buildings under construction, hulking skeletons of two-by-fours and plywood.

Last Monday, a half-constructed wood-framed apartment building at CityPlace in Overland Park was set on fire accidentally by a welding torch. The blaze rapidly turned into an inferno, flattening the building and spreading burning cinders onto the roofs of nearby homes.

“It’s almost a building with toothpicks — that’s what it is,” said Kevin Flory, president of the Kansas State Firefighters Association, about the multifamily wooden structures. “It’s a lot of fire load in there.”

The Overland Park fire was the third huge under-construction apartment blaze around the country since February.

The sudden frequency of these midconstruction, wood-framed apartment fires has fire safety experts exploring whether to revisit fire and safety standards during construction, a phase when these wood-framed buildings are particularly vulnerable.

“Is it the wood framing construction?” asked Robert Solomon, division manager for building fire protection for the National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit organization that develops codes and standards for fire protection. “Is it a process thing? Do we need to look at the distance between structures while they’re vulnerable? Those are all questions people are going to be asking.”

The developer of CityPlace has said it worked with the general contractor on fire safety programs. The Star has requested documents from Overland Park City Hall about the fire safety program, construction inspections and permits at City Place. City officials acknowledged receiving the request and were processing it, but The Star had not received the records as of Friday afternoon.

Of course, the risks of building with wood compared to steel, concrete or masonry has been long-known. But builders and developers tend to prefer wood because it’s inexpensive, lightweight and is a renewable resource.

In February, a luxury apartment building under construction in Maplewood, N.J., was consumed by fire. In downtown Raleigh, N.C., firefighters scrambled to douse a raging apartment fire there March 17 that put surrounding properties at risk.

The images of the Raleigh blaze were not unlike those captured of the CityPlace fire, where flames shot into the sky during the eight-alarm fire.

National Fire Protection Association lists several standards and precautions to follow while doing “hot work” like welding at a construction site.

They include an on-site fire brigade — a team of workers trained on how to respond to the initial stages of a fire — fire protection systems while construction progresses and a fire watch team that looks for possible ignition during work such as welding and for up to two hours afterward.

Laurie Roberts, a spokeswoman for CityPlace developer Block Multifamily Group, said the company worked with general contractor Titan Built on fire safety.

“As an owner we work with the general contractor on all fire safety programs for all of our construction sites. Titan is ultimately responsible to manage and maintain all appropriate safety protocols,” Roberts said in an email to The Star.

“As it relates to fire safety they have live fire hydrants, fire watch programs, and 3rd party observation services in place at all times while performing any type of ‘hot’ work. They have safety programs in place and train all personnel to handle all natural disaster or accidental incidents that may occur. We work side by side Titan to fully understand these procedures.”

Flory, the president of Kansas State Firefighters Association, said the trend of large-scale construction made primarily of wood has increased. He remembers when it was rare to see a predominantly wooden structure larger than a duplex or fourplex.

But in recent years, he’s seen a rise in large apartment complexes and other structures built with wood and not steel or concrete.

These wooden structures — “lightweight” construction in which beams are sometimes fastened with glue instead of nails — create specific fire risks.

Wooden structures have void spaces between floors and ceilings where fire can spread quickly and undetected, Flory said. Other materials are not as combustible and can sometimes slow the spread of fire.

In CityPlace’s case, the one building that was destroyed was mostly wood frame, according to the Overland Park Fire Department. A second building sustained severe damage, but to a lesser extent because drywall had been installed, which limited the fire’s proliferation.

That risk is also exacerbated in the construction phase when sprinklers systems are unlikely to be completed or activated, and it’s unclear to firefighters how stable or complete the building is.

“As a fire service, we’re lucky to have 10 minutes of burn time on a building before it gets into collapse,” Flory said. “It’s difficult to get ahead of fires like that.”

Flory said residents were in some ways lucky that the fire occurred in a metro area with fire departments from other jurisdictions able to provide help and resources.

Water, equipment and manpower is essential to quickly controlling a rapidly burning fire such as the one in Overland Park.

“Hats off to them,” Flory said of the Overland Park Fire Department and the other agencies that responded. “It showed what the mutual aid system is all about.”

Solomon, the building fire expert with NFPA, said blazes like CityPlace can occur even with the best preparation but was concerned about the three big fires occurring in such quick succession.

“It’s like anything else, these things are going to happen periodically,” Solomon said. “The thing is the frequency. A major fire in February and two major fires in 10 days in March.”

Ken Block, managing principal of Block Real Estate Services, said conditions on Monday amounted to a “perfect storm” that consumed a portion of his $450 million CityPlace development.

“High winds, very dry conditions, we’ve been in a drought, hot conditions — unusually hot,” Block said. “Everything that could have possibly added to the situation did and turned into a very, very unfortunate accident.”

Steve Vockrodt: 816-234-4277, @st_vockrodt

Katy Bergen: 816-234-4120, @KatyBergen

Block Development Company announced on Thursday it established the Block Cares Fire Relief Fund through the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation. The first donation was $50,000 contribution from the Kenneth and Lisa Block Philanthropic Foundation. Online donations can be made at blockcaresfirerelieffund.com. Checks can be written to the GKCCF, 1055 Broadway Blvd., suite 130, Kansas City, MO 64105, with “Block Cares Fire Relief Fund” in the memo line.