April 3, 2011 Secaucus…
Feb. 18, 2012, Jersey City…
Hours later, Feb. 19, Hoboken...
April 8, Easter Sunday, Jersey City…
Several fires in Hudson County, including two this year in Jersey City and two others in neighboring Hoboken, are stark examples of the potential hazards of urban living, where flames can spread quickly from one apartment or building to the next, particularly in older structures.
Despite new development along the Hudson County waterfront, much of the local housing stock and commercial real estate is more than 100 years old. Among these properties, those that haven’t undergone extensive structural renovations remain essentially unchanged since they were built more than a lifetime ago.
The reason why these buildings that are 100 years old burn the way they do is because of the way they were constructed.
Residents often aren’t aware of it, but many older buildings have a small airspace, known as a cockloft, that’s situated between the roof and ceiling of the top floor units. Where buildings are of the same height and are adjoined, the cockloft often runs the entire length of several buildings, which can be an entire city block. A continuous cockloft can make it easier for a fire to spread rapidly from one building to the next.
The Jersey City Fire Department has yet to determine the official cause of the fire that started at 349 Claremont Ave., on Easter Sunday. But the department knows where the fire began and how it spread.
“This was a devastating fire in the sense that when it started in the basement it went up vertically very quickly and horizontally because of the cockloft opening,” said Jersey City Fire Director Armando Roman. “It’s very common in Jersey City, Hoboken, and throughout the county where we have these structures that are about 100 years old. These old structures don’t have the kind of building codes that we have now. The codes we have now would prevent that from happening. Once a fire gets into a cockloft it becomes much harder to fight.”
Considered to be the worst fire in Jersey City in recent memory, the Easter Sunday fire damaged 10 homes, but no lives were lost. However, three or four of the wood-framed structures were so badly damaged that city engineers ordered that they be taken down last week.
“The reason why these buildings that are 100 years old burn the way they do is because of the way they were constructed. But even developments built in the ‘70s might have a cockloft in them,” said Michael Gonnelli, Secaucus mayor and former chief of the volunteer fire department in Secaucus, where a woman died in a townhouse fire a year ago.
In that incident, which took place at the Harmon Cove Townhouses, a cockloft shared by several townhomes helped spread the fire, Gonnelli said.
“When you look at the way a fire spreads, it spreads up [vertically], then across…Most of these buildings aren’t equipped with the safety nets that we find in newer construction. Construction codes today, compared to what they were back when most of these buildings were constructed, is like night and day.”
Gonnelli said it wasn’t until the 1990s that new buildings were required to install sprinklers, firewalls, and other safety measures. The 1996 BOCA National Fire Prevention Code, for example, detailed several roof-related design and construction guidelines that were incorporated into new construction. Among them was the requirement that buildings with common cocklofts have a fire resistant barrier installed between them.
But the BOCA code is not retroactive and does not apply to older buildings constructed before the 1996 guidelines were drafted. The guidelines apply only to new construction. The owners of older buildings are not required to comply with the BOCA construction codes, although some owners choose to have them installed. Roman said he had firewalls professionally built between his own home and the one next door to prevent the spread of flames should a fire occur.
“The last building on Claremont actually had a makeshift firewall that was brick. Somebody had tried to retrofit the cockloft space,” said Roman. “But the brick didn’t go all the way up to the top of the roof. So the fire was able to spread. Had they had the brick all the way to the top, that house wouldn’t have had as much damage.”
Roman said the cockloft problem was less of an issue in the February fire that destroyed more than a dozen homes and businesses at Monticello and Fairmont avenues, “because in that fire the buildings were of different heights.”
Old wiring, new technology
As firefighters continue to investigate the cause of the Claremont Avenue fire they are still exploring the possibility that an electrical problem may be to blame – which points to yet another feature many old buildings share: out-of-date wiring.
Roman said old wiring is not necessarily a fire hazard and only a licensed electrician can determine whether the wiring in a condo or apartment building should be upgraded. But residents, he said, should be aware that older buildings may be more likely to have damaged wiring – which can be a fire hazard – and they should be mindful of potential problems.
“Obviously, if you’ve had some issues, say, you’re constantly blowing a fuse, heed the warning and have a licensed electrician come in and inspect your electrical system,” said Roman. Residents, he added, should avoid such habits as using high wattage light bulbs (more than 60 watts) in low wattage sockets or using a tangle of extension cords to power the many electrical gadgets in their homes.
“Have an electrician see if you need more amperage in your home,” Roman added.
Can anything be done?
“Construction codes have changed for the better,” Roman noted. “But most of us are living in older housing.”
For this reason, Roman and Gonnelli both stressed the importance of having working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in homes and they encouraged residents to practice common sense fire safety. Don’t leave space heaters unattended and near curtains or other material. Be careful when smoking and don’t dump ashtrays in trash cans. Avoid using frayed electrical cords. And don’t block windows and fire escapes.
“We’ve actually been pretty lucky,” Gonnelli stated. “Given the age of our buildings, we could have had fires that were a lot worse.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.