Catastrophic apartment blaze exposes wood construction + fire sprinkler folly

Sources: CP staff; New York Times; Associated Press; AvalonBay Communities Inc., Arlington, Va.

“If it was made out of concrete and cinder block, we wouldn’t have this sort of problem,” Edgewater (N.J.) Fire Chief Tom Jacobson said at a press briefing after a blaze destroyed or severely damaged more than half of Avalon at Edgewater, a 408-unit, wood-framed apartment complex built to 1990s-style code. The January 21 incident saw no loss of life and minor injuries to four firefighters and civilians.

Triggered by a plumbing crew’s welding equipment, the late-afternoon fire swept the four-level property, which was equipped with functioning automatic fire sprinklers. Chief Jacobson noted the use of lightweight wood trusses, which invite rapid flame spread. News footage from the scene, to which 500-plus fire service members responded, suggested limited presence of firewalls—built of concrete masonry or equivalent noncombustible material—typically required through the roof line of multi-unit dwellings.

Located along the Hudson River, across from New York City, Avalon at Edgewater has 257-unit and 151-unit buildings, the former uninhabitable. Between the main building and neighboring residences, the New York Times and Associated press reported, the fire displaced more than 1,000 people.