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High-Rise Apartment Fires Raise Concerns About Sprinkler Systems, Escape Routes

On July 14, residents of Honolulu’s Marco Polo Apartments fled a lethal fire around 2 p.m. that left three dead and 16 people injured. This is one of several apartment fires that have occurred in the U.S. and London this year alone, leaving residents dead, injured or displaced from existing apartments, new apartments burned to the ground before residents could ever move in and local officials wondering whether these properties were adequately built to withstand large fires.

Fires, ablaze

One common concern for local officials has been the lack of sprinkler systems built into older properties. On a national basis, most commercial buildings were not required to have automatic fire sprinklers before the 1980s, and attempting to retrofit buildings with these systems could cost thousands, and at times millions, per unit, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Below are details surrounding four major apartment fires that have occurred this year in existing and under-construction buildings.

Honolulu's Marco Polo Apartments

Honolulu Marco Polo apts
Marco Polo apartments in Honolulu

On Friday, the fire broke out on the 26th floor of the Marco Polo Apartments at 2333 Kapiolani Blvd., a 36-floor development with 568 units. Though the cause of the fire is still under investigation, Fire Chief Manuel Neves told CNN a lack of sprinklers is to blame for how much the fire spread.

“Without a doubt, if there was sprinklers in this apartment, the fire would be contained to the unit of origin,” Neves said.

The building was completed in 1971, and sprinkler systems were not required in high-rises erected prior to 1974, CNN reports. The fire swept through more than a dozen units and took firefighters roughly five hours to put out entirely. Many residents were allowed to return home to the Marco Polo Apartments, the fourth-largest high-rise apartment development in Honolulu, on Saturday.

Here's video of the fire from Twitter on July 14:

Downtown Oakland Apartments at 2302 Valdez St.

This four-alarm fire sent a six-story, 193-unit under-construction apartment building tumbling on the morning of July 7. The Wood Partners project at 2302 Valdez St. near Grand Avenue was slated to open spring 2018 and feature 31K SF of retail. The cause of the fire is still under investigation, though Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said she was disconcerted that recent nearby fires were deliberately set. The fire took hours to contain and resulted in the temporary displacement of more than 700 residents of nearby buildings. The Alta Waverly development, backed by investors including The Carlyle Group, cost an estimated $80M to construct.

College Park Outside of D.C.

College Park Wood Partners Fire
The five-alarm fire at Wood Partners' Fuse 47 in College Park caused $39M in damage.

Now down in history as one of the largest fires in the area, the fire just outside of Washington, D.C., at Wood Partners’ 275-unit College Park project, caused roughly $39M worth of damage — the highest fire loss amount on record, according to the local Prince George's County Fire Department.

Officials said the fire was a challenge to tame because the apartment building, which was not complete and was still being pre-leased, did not yet have a completed sprinkler system, allowing the fire to travel quickly. The fire, which occurred in late April, pushed back the initial opening date to July. 

London's Grenfell Tower

Grenfell Tower, London fire
London's Grenfell Tower on fire on June 14.

This major fire that resulted in 79 deaths raised concerns about building preparedness in the event of a major fire, including concerns regarding available emergency exits and their placement and worries about power surges sparking fires. The blaze occurred June 14 at Grenfell Tower and spread through 24 levels. 

Residents who survived the fire said they had voiced concerns to the property’s management organization about the building’s lack of a building-wide fire alarm and sprinkler system, that it only included one escape route and the location of the apartment’s boilers and gas pipes. 

More than 140 families were placed in hotels after the fire and some will be moving into a luxury apartment complex roughly two miles south of Grenfell, where sale prices start at about $2M/unit.