As we were driving home from Nags Head this past Saturday, we passed by an apartment building in Chesapeake that was on fire. In fact, Chesapeake fire units were just arriving as we passed by on Interstate 64, crossing the Elizabeth River. Once I got home, I began a search to learn what I could about this fire. The WAVY10 website gave me the information I was looking for. The fire went to a second alarm and damaged all eight units in an unoccupied apartment building that was under renovation.
A couple of days later, I learned that the fire was deemed accidental, apparently caused by work that the plumbers had been doing in the building. You might wonder how fire investigators can narrow the point of origin down to a specific area, but extensive training, experience of investigators, reports of witnesses and first-arriving firefighters, and burn patterns and indicators lead them to the area where the fire started. In this case, the area of origin was determined to be where the plumbers had probably been sweating copper pipe. In other words, they were using a propane torch to heat up copper fittings. Copper is a metal that conducts heat, allowing that heat to travel to another point in the building. Also, the heat from the propane torch can cause dust or other combustibles to smolder and eventually catch fire when it gets enough air.
Buildings under construction or renovation are vulnerable to more extensive damage, due to the fact that the building is unoccupied and the fire goes unnoticed for a long period of time. Another reason is that the building is in various stages of construction or reconstruction, and fire spread is more rapid. There are different construction practices that could cause a fire. As stated earlier, plumbers sweating pipe is one. Others include heaters that are used to dry sheetrock, a tar pot on a roof, welding or the use of acetylene torches. In the large majority of cases, highly skilled workers conduct these activities day in and day out. It is only in rare instances that a wayward spark or a transfer of enough heat starts a fire.
I will have to say that when I hear about a fire in an unoccupied building, under renovation, I immediately wonder if the fire was set. I have seen fires throughout my career that were set in order to get insurance money, due to the fact that the company has been losing money for a long period of time. This fire did not fall into that category, but investigators must always have that thought in the back of their minds.
I do not know if this column will help prevent a fire from occurring because of these potential causes, but I still find it interesting to research fires that occur, trying to learn what I can about them so I can share the information with you. In this incident, neither citizens nor firefighters were injured. Buildings in various states of repair are dangerous for firefighters. Kudos to everyone involved in this safe firefighting operation.