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Monday, July 19, 2004 

Deadly Fairfax fire shows growing peril 
By Eric M. Weiss/ Washington Post 

A tiny flame from a candle touched papers that melted vinyl siding and set off a fire that raced unnoticed up three floors. The blaze torched 18 condominiums, left three people dead and forced a man on fire to leap from a third-floor balcony. 

Beyond the devastating personal tragedy, the fire in Fairfax County last weekend also highlighted a little-known danger in the Washington region and across the county, fire safety officials say: Houses are built too close together. Radiant heat from the fire in the Kingstowne section of the county nearly set ablaze another building 34 feet away. 

"It was about ready to go over there, very close," said Fairfax fire and rescue's Peter J. Michel, lead investigator in the fatal blaze. "I'm surprised we only lost the three the other day." 

Michel and other fire officials fear that entire blocks of houses could erupt in flames in a serious fire. National building codes allow single-family houses to be built just six feet apart. Increasing development pressure and the scarcity of land in metropolitan areas are resulting in more -- and larger -- houses built to minimum spacing standards. 

Building suburban-style houses at an urban density could cause conflagrations that could devastate whole neighborhoods, fire officials warn. 

"It's just a matter of time before we have big fires here," Michel said. "They're building them right on top of each other." 

Fire officials in Virginia, alarmed by recent blazes that have moved swiftly from one house to the next, have been at the forefront of efforts to strengthen national standards by forcing houses to be built farther apart or requiring such additional protections as fire walls. They are seeking to make the International Residential Code, used in the District, Virginia, Maryland and 41 other states, at least as strong as regulations adopted recently in Virginia. 

The National Institute of Standards and Technology also is concerned and today will conduct a series of test burns at the federal agency's facility in Gaithersburg. The agency hopes to use the data to create computer models to help fire officials decide how close to one another houses can be built safely. 

"If one house has a fire, it shouldn't affect the neighbor's house. It certainly shouldn't affect the neighbor's neighbor's house," said Battalion Chief L. Ray Scott of Prince William County. That is what happened in Loudoun County in 1994, when three houses -- each six feet apart -- went up in flames before the first firetruck arrived. In January, a Gainesville house fire spread quickly to the house next door, 11.4 feet away. 

Scott pushed successfully for new rules from the Virginia Board of Housing that will force developers to build houses 10 feet apart or build a fire wall. The rules will go into effect this year, after they are published in the Virginia Registry and after a public comment period. 

Some fire experts say planners and political leaders in U.S. suburbs have been lulled into complacency by decreasing numbers of fires and fire deaths. The success is largely a result of smoke detectors, sprinklers, safer electrical wiring and better stairwell and exit design. 

Industry groups say there are no data to support the contention that building houses farther apart would prevent the spread of fires. They say that houses today are safer than ever. Indeed, the number of fire fatalities in the United States has dropped from 3,825 in 1993 to 2,695 in 2002, according to the U.S. Fire Administration. 

But reliance on newer materials and technology is resulting in buildings that some say are less sturdy than houses of the past. Using vinyl siding instead of stucco or masonry, smaller and drier timber, and home furnishings made of plastics and chemicals that create a toxic smoke when burned make newer houses more dangerous, some experts say. 

"We are building more and more combustible buildings and building them closer together," said Vincent Brannigan, a professor at the University of Maryland's department of fire protection engineering. "We are pushing all of the envelopes at the same time." 


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