The Kelowna Fire Department has been authorized to ramp up its education campaign for strata councils in response to the threat balcony fires pose to the many four-storey wood-frame apartment and condo buildings in Kelowna.
Between March and September, the fire department was called out to five such fires in the Central Okanagan, with the so-called Legacy fire, during which the side of a building went up in minutes as the result of a barbecue incident, among the more notorious.
“While it would be a simple solution to restrict (the use of) barbecues on balconies, the obvious problem is the enforcement,” said KFD chief Jeff Carlisle as he addressed Kelowna city council Monday.
The council previously asked the fire department and city staff to look into ways to mitigate the damage wrought by these types of fires after balcony blazes caused by everything from candles to an electrical cord from a balcony fridge left homeowners in the lurch this year.
The fire chief said the fires pose a serious threat as they are currently not met with any form of structural control—such as fire alarms, sprinklers or fire walls.
“The affect of these fires is about 2.5 times greater than had it started in the unit in itself,” he said.
Fires that occur inside a condo or apartment, such as a kitchen fire, face barriers ranging from mandatory sprinklers to alarms; however, on the outside of a building, under the BC Building Code, there is currently no such requirement. As evident in the Legacy fire, vinyl siding is also highly combustible, allowing a fire to climb several storeys in minutes, before firefighters have a chance to respond.
Once the fire crawls up the outside of the building, it then goes straight into the roof where the fire department can’t physically access it with ease and it burns above the inside sprinkler system.
“I’m wondering if some of the stratas insurance must go up if they continue to permit barbecues on the decks,” said Coun. Luke Stack, who asked the chief to look at the issue in his educational campaign before he hits strata councils with a pitch.
The fire chief said he would add it to the list, along with options to have stratas look at installing fire alarms and fire extinguishers to retrofit buildings where it would be cost prohibitive to install sprinklers.
There are 491 existing wood-frame walk-ups in the City of Kelowna where this would apply.
In the meantime, there is a national move afoot to change the building code nationally, and then provincially, to force all new construction of this type to have sprinklers on balconies.
As this could take time to trickle down to the municipal level, City of Kelowna staff are using an education campaign of their own to encourage developers to look into the option of adding outdoor sprinklers.
Well-known developer John Hertay, who is building Academy Apartments above UBCO, was the first to voluntarily buy into the concept, noting the $135 price tag per unit is well worth the value added for his customers in providing future property protection.