Fire laws failing historic buildings Preservationists push more stringent rules after Annapolis blaze

March 02, 1998|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

The recent blaze that destroyed a 98-year-old building in Annapolis has kindled fears about the vulnerability of the city's treasure of historic buildings.

Although fires have burned parts of historic Boston, Baltimore and Ellicott City over the past two centuries, few strong laws or fire prevention systems have been put into place to protect the oldest urban structures in what were the original 13 Colonies.

Nationwide, fire laws have become more stringent, but most are designed to save lives, not structures. The laws that do protect buildings focus on new structures -- not combustible historic monuments.

That leaves a good, speedy fire department and luck as the main defenses against fires that can erase centuries.

"Some of these historic buildings aren't even required to have a smoke detector," said Anne M. Fligsten, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. "Fire walls, fire doors, fire suppression systems aren't routinely required. A fire has free rein.

"We're hoping [the Main Street fire] is a wake-up. We're hoping the city will require more stringent standards for historic building owners to avoid something like this in the future. It could have been so much worse."

Nestled together, filled with outdated wiring and constructed of wood frames interspersed with air-filled spaces, historic districts are tinderboxes, fire specialists say.

Worse, few owners of historic buildings take on the expense of retrofitting with fire protection technology, and most city codes don't require them to.

The 184-186 Main St. blaze is a good example.

Fire investigators said an electrical spark in the ceiling above a first-floor Indian restaurant produced a flame about 9 a.m. Dec. 9. It smoldered for hours, undetected by at least 20 people in the building.

Finally, flames climbed up wooden rafters and between walls, fueled by oxygen in the building's open spaces. Annapolis law does not require sprinkler systems or fire walls in many old buildings, which might have prevented the spread of the flames. About 8 1/2 hours later, thick, black smoke poured from the roof. By then, the 100 firefighters sent to Main Street could do little to save the building.

But this time, a strong fire department and luck did work for Annapolis. No one was injured and major buildings on either side of the fire were saved.

"It's pretty much all but for the grace of God that we don't have a huge fire wipe out our historic districts," said Al Cox, staff architect for the Department of Planning and Zoning in Alexandria, Va.

Years ago, Maryland adopted the BOCA National Fire Prevention Code and Life Safety Code, the foundation for fire laws in localities. These codes require smoke detectors in all dwellings and a higher level of fire protection in most new commercial buildings, including smoke detectors, alarms and sprinklers. Localities can adopt more stringent laws.

But the code does not apply to old commercial buildings unless: They are altered, remodeled or renovated;

The use changes from residential to commercial, or a new business moves in;

They contain hazards "inimical to the public welfare and safety."

In most cases, inspections are performed when a complaint is filed or on an "as-needs basis," said Battalion Chief George L. Ellis, Annapolis' top fire marshal. Between complaints and other duties, such as approving site plans for new businesses, the office cannot keep up, he says.

For example, in the first block of Main St., records show that of five buildings, three were inspected last year, one in 1995 and one in 1984. Of those, two are equipped with at least two exits, emergency lights and fire extinguishers, two have fire alarms and one is equipped with required safety devices, including sprinklers.

"There are some buildings here I've never been in," said Ellis, one of three city fire inspectors in charge of checking several thousand buildings, including almost 1,500 historic ones.

Since the Main Street fire, Del. Virginia P. Clagett, an Anne Arundel Democrat, has introduced legislation offering property tax credits to businesses and homeowners to encourage installation of sprinklers.

The Annapolis city council recently passed a resolution to create an 11-member commission to study fire safety standards in historic buildings in other cities.

But some Annapolis building owners fear that new laws will saddle them with big expenses.

Disaster can spur action

In Baltimore, a 1904 fire swept through a large portion of downtown, from Baltimore Street to the harbor. Baltimore preservationists say many old buildings were rebuilt with masonry fire walls separating the new structures.

In Ellicott City in 1984, a six-alarm, $1 million fire destroyed five buildings along historic Main Street. The lack of fire walls or sprinkler systems and poor access for firefighters doomed the buildings, firefighters said.

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