Pair of recent three-alarm fires at Denver construction sites set off warnings for industry

Prior to a deadly fire that broke out at an apartment building construction site in the 1800 block of Emerson Street in March, the Denver Fire Department had not responded to a three-alarm fire since 2013, officials say. Little more than two months later, the department is sifting through the ashes of another three-alarm blaze.

Early Thursday morning, two under-construction townhome buildings in the 1900 block of Grove Street burned down. More than 100 firefighters and 30 emergency vehicles responded to the scene.

No one was hurt, but, like its predecessor on Emerson Street, the fire broke out at the construction site for a multi-family building where raw wood framing was exposed atop concrete ground floors. The three alarm fire in Glendale in 2013 also destroyed an under-construction residential complex with exposed wood elements. The causes of the two recent fires remain under investigation, but officials say the incidents are a wake-up call about heightened fire danger at construction sites.

“I think this really gives us an indication of how vulnerable we are in this construction phase,” said Capt. Greg Pixley of the Denver Fire Department. “We have a lot of construction projects going on right now. And everyone needs to be aware there could be a fire on a construction site.”

Firefighting and construction industry professionals say wood-frame buildings are largely fire safe once completed thanks to measures like sprinkler systems, but when those systems are either not yet in place or not yet operational, wood remains highly combustible.

Major trade organizations in Colorado, already on high alert following the Emerson fire, are now moving quickly to roll out additional education and training opportunities centered on best practices for job-site fire safety.

Michael Gifford, president of the Association of General Contractors of Colorado, said his organization’s safety council is looking into education options and best-practice recommendations it can offer its more than 500 member firms. It could begin rolling those out by next week.

The Home Builders Association of Metro Denver is planning a fire-safety-specific training session for its members in Denver next month, CEO Jeff Whiton said.

“Typically in what we do we don’t see a lot of fires, but it caught our attention,” Whiton said of the recent fires. “We want to keep our labor safe on the job site, and we want to protect the investment that people are putting into their homes.”

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Denver’s recent fires have also drawn the eyes of some outside of Colorado. Steve Conboy worked as a lumber and framing contractor in the construction industry for more than four decades before becoming general manager of M-Fire Suppression Inc. The company produces a spray it claims can be applied to wood framing and other wood elements at job sites during construction, insulating the wood from fire even in cases of arson where fuels like gasoline may be used.

Fire safety on job sites is a major issue not just in Denver but across the country, Conboy said. He has tracked at least 20 under-construction buildings that have burned down in the last year and half, pointing to recent fires in Tacoma, Wash., and Prince George’s County, Md., as recent examples.

“The industry needs to change. We need to do something. We can’t let these buildings keep burning. People are getting hurt,” he said. “We’re calling on all the buildings in Denver there now.”

There is one simple thing everyone can do to make their neighborhoods safer, whether there are constructions projects in the area or not, according to DFD’s Capt. Pixley: Don’t hesitate, call 911 at the first indication there may be a fire nearby.

“The sooner someone can activate the 911 system, the sooner we can get there to assist and determine if it’s safe. That can save property, save heirlooms, save lives,” he said. ” We need to embrace the ultimate goal and that is to help people and address the emergency before it becomes a catastrophe.”

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