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Apr 30 2010

Update on the River Course fire

fire early onBy Tom Kulick, Commissioner, St. John’s Fire District

At the Town of Kiawah Island’s Public Safety Committee meeting on Tuesday, April 20, Chief Karl Ristow of the St. John’s Fire Department gave an update on the independent investigation being conducted by the North Charleston Fire Department (NCFD) of the fire at the River Course Clubhouse, which occurred on March 19. Ristow noted the St. John’s FD wanted to be sure that “ethically, it was doing the right thing.”

As previously reported, the original early morning fire was concentrated around a can light in the plywood ceiling above the men’s sauna, and the dead space between the ceiling of the sauna and the space under the next floor above. The heat generated set off a sprinkler head near the light fixture. After the fire was extinguished, the Fire Department cut holes in the ceiling and inspected the area visually and with thermal imaging cameras, which are designed for seeing through smoke and not walls or other construction products. Because the building is structurally compartmentalized, it complicated the Fire Department’s ability to find and fight the fire.

While no conclusions have been finalized, the NCFD’s investigation to date seems to indicate the fire was actually caused by a short in a wire running up a side wall of the sauna. It appears that there was no conduit (it was not in a protected casing). The short and subsequent fire in the wall traveled up and through the heavily compartmentalized area to the light can in the ceiling. There was no indication at the time that the Fire Department needed to tear the entire sauna apart; therefore there was no way for them to know that the wire in the wall was heating up to a dangerous level.

Later that morning, approximately two hours after the Fire Department left the River Course, Clubhouse employees noticed smoke coming from the attic area and called 911. By the time the Fire Department returned, the fire was entrenched in the attic, which had minimal access from the interior and none from the outside through the slate roof. Further exacerbating the situation was the volume of documents stored in the attic, which provided additional fuel to the fire. Within 15 minutes of the Fire Department’s Incident Commander pulling all firefighters from the structure, the slate roof collapsed. Shortly thereafter, all fire trucks close to the building were pulled back. This was done within minutes of the outside walls collapsing.

It is Fire Department policy, complying with National consensus standards and best practices, that “life safety is number one.” According to the Fire Department’s risk management guidelines, it will take a greater acceptable risk where there is a potential to save lives; it will take limited risk to save property; and it will take no risk when lives and property are already lost. Because of limited access and the fire load (records storage) in the attic space, the building could not be saved.

Having finished the “look back” part of their investigation, the NCFD is now waiting to examine various documents, such as building permits and plans, including those for the electrical work and sprinkler system, in order to complete their job.

What the NCFD investigators have determined so far is the following:

• A combination of factors – how the sprinkler system operates; the compartmentalization of the building; weight and limited access to the attic; and the need to cut tree limbs – contributed to the intensity of the fire.

• There is no evidence to indicate the St. John’s Fire Department should have responded differently for both incidents at the River Course Clubhouse.

When the investigation has been completed, the final report and its analysis will be made available for the public to view.

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