Ivy League professor quantifies high social costs of wood construction fires

Sources: Build with Strength Coalition, Washington, D.C.; CP staff

With special attention to incidents involving Los Angeles multi-family developments, a study from Columbia University Adjunct Assistant Professor Urvashi Kaul offers a cost-benefit analysis showing wood-framed residential building fires’ economic impact on citizens and local governments. 

“Los Angeles could lose $22.6 billion in wood-framed residential fire losses over the next 15 years,” he says. While property damage accounts for roughly $20.5 billion of that figure, he notes, potential city expenditures could amount to $132.5 million: $70.1 million going to police, fire, and sanitation departments; $62.4 million for such indirect costs as remediation, insurance, and planning. 

Professor Kaul analyzes the 2011 Renaissance City Center and 2014 Da Vinci Apartment fires. The former destroyed five buildings, required 100 firefighters to extinguish, and displaced 100-plus residents, including senior citizens, from nearby buildings and homes. Fire consumed the Da Vinci property, damaged four neighboring buildings, required mobilization of 250 firefighters, and spurred shutdown of the California Highway 101 northbound lanes for hours. 

The study dovetails the efforts of Build with Strength, a National Ready Mixed Concrete Association-backed coalition of community organizations, fire safety professionals, engineers, architects and industry experts committed to strengthening the nation’s building codes and ensuring greater access to secure housing. 

Coalition members include Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, whose executive director has witnessed the perils of combustible building materials. “I lost most of my belongings, the family dog, nearly everything due to an electrical fire that burned my wood-framed childhood home,” recalls Rabbi Jonathan Klein. “It could have so easily been prevented had there not been tinder. In a flash, everything was consumed. No one should have to experience that kind of a loss, which is why I’m a big advocate for safer building materials.”


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