Too few sprinklers, wind cited in fire's rapid spread
Only two buildings had modern fire safety, officials say
Sep. 15, 2013
Sprinkler systems in at least two buildings may have spared them from the Seaside boardwalk inferno Thursday, but many of the older, wooden structures likely perished because of the wild wind and a lack of modern fire-protection systems, local and national experts said.
Many of the burned buildings were erected before current standards — requiring firewalls and other measures to reduce the chances of a fire breaking out and spreading — took effect, according to Jack A. Purvis, a Wall architect and president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects.
“The chances of a fire occurring are less ... if the building’s built to current code, and because of the techniques used, the chances of a fire, if it does start, spreading from building to building would be limited,” he said.
But “the biggest problem they had down there (Thursday) was the wind,” Purvis said. “The wind was blowing everything north. I give the firemen a lot of credit (for) how they got that under control.”
Brian Gabriel, Ocean County’s chief fire coordinator, said a few buildings had sprinkler systems, but they needed to get water from the borough’s water system, which was being taxed by the firefighters to get water into hose lines.
Seaside Heights Fire Chief Bill Rumbolo said Beachcomber Bar & Grill had sprinklers inside the structure on the second and third floors. The sprinklers were hooked up to the borough water system and saturated the interior.
He said the Sawmill Cafe in Seaside Park was spared in part by the direction of the wind, but it also had an exterior sprinkler system on the first and second floor that created a water curtain to protect the building.
Rumbolo couldn’t say if any others had suppression systems.
The fire that began in or near Kohr’s Frozen Custard in Seaside Park moved quickly along the boardwalk into Seaside Heights, fanned by winds gusting to around 30 mph and destroying dozens of businesses overall. Buildings that were substantially damaged will have to meet modern fire-safety standards if they’re rebuilt, according to experts.
Seaside Heights Business Administrator John Camera said “it seems like the biggest factor that caused that (fire) to spread was the fact all those buildings, no matter how they were constructed, were constructed on a wooden boardwalk, and once the boardwalk itself caught on fire, then with that strong wind blowing, it really” grew.
“From what I saw, there were more signs of that fire moving north … under the boardwalk (than) let’s say from building to building,” he said. “I saw a section of the boardwalk where the top was still intact, the joists completely burnt away.”
Many of the buildings had flat asphalt roofs, and “that certainly is a factor in fires, especially when something is spreading the fire,” he said. There seemed to be “like a flight of large embers that flew and landed on roofs of buildings and caused that building to start on fire, too.”
Camera said more than 30 different businesses owned by about five property owners were destroyed in Seaside Heights. There might have been 15 buildings overall.
“Most of this was damage well beyond what would be called substantial damage,” and any rebuilding would have to meet current building code and zoning requirements, which may call for a different setback and different types of businesses, he said.
The fire caused “a lot of property damage, and that’s sad and a major loss for a lot of people,” Camera said. “I’m happy that due to the work of firefighters and the other first responders, there were no injuries and certainly no deaths, and that’s huge.”
Camera expects it will take a long time for the private property owners to rebuild, “because I think there’s going to be a lot of thought on what they’re going to rebuild.”
“They have an opportunity now where they’re going to have to build to new standards,” he said. “They are going to have to put (substantial capital funding) back into their operation. They may find that … building the kind of games and other arcade-type stuff that was there, it might make sure more sense to build something else.”