Condo complex fires highlight danger of lack of suppression systems

Donna Reis and Jon Wilkerson are among the hundreds of people displaced recently by two separate fires at an Arapahoe County condominium complex. The couple, who’ve shared the same one-bedroom residence for the past 30 years, say it’s unlikely that they’ll return.

Their condominium didn’t burn in the Feb. 1 fire at Club Valencia, in the 1300 block of South Parker Road, but smoke damage, and remediation of asbestos after the fire, has shut down their residence and an entire building for an undetermined length of time.

The couple, who are living in a friend’s basement, have not been able to enter the condo unit since the fire, which displaced people in 86 residences. An earlier fire at the same complex, in November, displaced residents from an additional 85 units.

“The fire three months ago, those tenants have not been allowed back into their units,” Reis said. “What has happened to them doesn’t look very good for us.”

The South Metro Fire District, along with support from surrounding fire departments, fought and extinguished the two recent fires at Club Valencia, a four-story complex with more than 300 units built around 1980.

Club Valencia, like other older complexes, does not have a fire suppression sprinkler system, which could explain the level of damage caused by the two fires.

After the first fire, Reis and Wilkerson talked with neighbors about the incident and shared concerns about the volume of the blaze.

“We all talked about the scope of the fire, that it was bigger because of a lack of sprinklers,” Wilkerson said. “We thought the whole building would go up in flames because of the lack of sprinklers in there.”

Fire sprinklers installed in residences control fire 96% of the time, according to the National Fire Sprinkler Association. Residents are 81% less likely to die in a fire when sprinklers are present and fire property damage is reduced by about 70% by sprinkler suppression.

Fires spark in buildings whether or not they are equipped with fire sprinklers, said South Metro Fire Marshal Anthony Valdez. However, fires that break out in buildings with suppression systems are quickly limited by those systems in area and scope, whereas fires in buildings without sprinkler systems can spread rapidly, including beyond the unit where the fire starts.

“Incidents of fire occur whether there’s a sprinkler or not,” Valdez said. “A fire in a nonsprinkler space will grow until firefighters arrive. In a space with a sprinkler, the fire is probably out before the first firefighters are on scene.”

No one died in the recent fires, but two people were taken to the hospital with injuries in the February fire and three people were hospitalized in the November fire. The two fires combined have shut down 171 units in the complex. The February fire was sparked by a kitchen incident. The November fire remains under investigation.

LCM Property Management, which manages the Club Valencia property, did not return a request seeking comment for this story.

Current building and fire codes in Arapahoe County call for all multi-family residential structures — condominium and apartment complexes — to install fire sprinklers as part of new construction, Valdez said, in line with the International Fire Code and the International Residential Code.

Existing are grandfathered and they can not be compelled to install sprinkler systems when local coeds are updated, Valdez said.

“Buildings are allowed to remain under their code of recess,” Valdez said. “For a building built in the 1960s, for example, that doesn’t change. The majority of our district is newer buildings with modern construction standards. We are fortunate in our district that there are less buildings that fall under the older codes.”

Covering about 300 square miles in Arapahoe, Douglas and Jefferson counties, including Littleton, Lone Tree, Parker and other cities, SMFR has about 270 complexes district-wide and 176 of those complexes, about 65%, have fire sprinklers installed, Valdez said.

“South Metro is a strong advocate of residential fire sprinkler installations,” he said.

After the November fire, Reis and Wilkerson were concerned about residents who had been displaced, while also being relieved that their unit and building was spared.

“I never thought there would be a second fire,” Reis said.

Now, the couple is unsure about their future at Club Valencia.

“In a perfect world, we get out our belongings and move on,” Wilkerson said.

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