Could Prospect Heights condo fire have been stopped? Why it spread so quickly

When firefighters were alerted to a fire at one of the 16 buildings that make up the River Trails Condominium complex in Prospect Heights Wednesday afternoon, they knew the blaze could quickly get out of hand.

And it did, gutting three buildings and leaving dozens homeless in just hours.

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Fire safety officials blame the speed and scope on a lack of modern fire safety devices and construction. The 46-year-old complex had no building-wide fire alarms, sprinkler systems, fire walls or attic separators — all fire safety features that experts say would have stopped or significantly slowed the inferno.

Each building was a tinderbox, fire officials said.

Authorities believe the blaze started in a second-floor unit in the southernmost building on McIntosh Court and rapidly spread upward and outward. Once it reached the attic, the blaze had unfettered access to the other three buildings.

The mansard-style roof that hangs over the third floor also allowed the fire to glide effortlessly along the structure’s side as the flames fed on air inside the enclosed eaves. A mild breeze then helped stoke the flames.

Firefighters made every attempt to stop or slow the spread of flames, but they were thwarted by the fire’s ability to keep moving until it got to the northernmost building. There, they made a successful stand against the encroaching flames.

“We tried to cut in several spots before that to try and stop it,” Prospect Heights Fire District Chief Drew Smith said. “It was a futile effort.”

After scores of firefighters from around the area attacked the blaze for hours, three of the buildings were left smoldering while a fourth had significant water and smoke damage. Three people, including one firefighter, sustained minor injuries.

Investigators said a juvenile accidentally ignited the blaze. No charges have been filed, authorities said.

“If this would have happened at 1 a.m. instead of 1 p.m. like it did, I don’t know how this would have turned out,” Smith said, alluding to a likelihood of multiple casualties.

New apartments are required to have sprinkler systems to suppress fires, firewalls to keep fires from spreading to other units, and attic separators that restrict overhead air flow in the building to lower the risk of fires spreading. None of the buildings that burned Wednesday had those, Smith said, and none had building-wide fire alarms.

Because of their age, the Prospect Heights buildings were not required to have those fire safety measures in place.

And under current city code, if the apartments are rebuilt, they still might not have them. If more than 50 percent of the buildings that burned are salvageable, the city can’t force the owners to retrofit the buildings to comply with modern fire codes.

“It’s a little early yet, so it’s not something we’ve discussed with the council,” City Administrator Joe Wade said. “It’s not uncommon for cities to adjust codes and provide a period to address that. This is the second large fire we’ve had at that development, so it’s worthwhile for us to look at.”

That’s how firefighters knew the initial call meant trouble. They had fought this battle before.

On Christmas Eve morning 2006, a blaze caused by Christmas lights in a second-floor unit had the entire third floor engulfed in 10 minutes, according to fire officials at the time. That fire also spread to a neighboring building, though firefighters were able to quickly extinguish it. In the end, only 30 percent of the building was destroyed and it was reconstructed without a sprinkler system or other modern fire suppression measures, Smith said.

Most of the River Trails units are individually owned and rented out to others. Tom Infusino owns four units, three of which he said were “demolished” by Wednesday’s fire. He was also the River Trails condo board president for 10 years before being voted out in January during an internal spat among owners over the future of the complex.

Infusino said he has no recollection of the board discussing retrofitting the buildings with fire safety devices when the 2006 fire happened. The reconstruction was done to code, he said, and the buildings all follow the city’s current requirements.

“Do I think the buildings are safe? Yeah, I believe they are safe, and thank God nobody got hurt,” he said. “If the city council required (retrofitting) we’d definitely have to do it and we would do it.”

But he’s worried that the cost would require a special assessment that would possibly be passed on to renters, who might then be priced out of their homes.

Estimates indicate retrofitting existing buildings with sprinklers costs between $2 and $7 per square foot, according to the National Fire Protection Association. The 16 buildings at River Trails contain roughly 380,000 square feet of living space, putting the estimated cost at somewhere between $760,000 and $2.7 million.

Fire experts said these apartments aren’t the only ones in the suburbs at risk of a catastrophic fire.

“There are apartment buildings all over the area built in the 1960s and 1970s that are not sprinklered” and are grandfathered in like this, Warrenville Fire Protection District Fire Marshal Lee Westrom said.

No one has an exact number of older suburban apartment units without modern fire safety technology, but fire experts agree that most units are likely lacking, considering the expense to retrofit the buildings.

“A fire sprinkler system would have had the hugest impact on this fire,” said Robert Morris, executive director of the Illinois Fire Inspectors Association and Roselle Fire Department fire marshal. “It’s certainly not an inexpensive item, but the cost to install is certainly cheaper than what it’ll cost to reconstruct those buildings.”

Morris said the recent federal tax bill gives owners of multifamily structures incentives to retrofit existing buildings with fire suppressing sprinklers. He said the reduction in insurance premiums would save owners and renters significantly.

Meanwhile, several towns have gone so far as to require sprinklers in new construction of single-family homes.

Smith, the Prospect Heights fire chief, warns against rebuilding the apartments as if nothing happened.

“We are going to meet with the city and try to put forth a strategy for what comes next,” he said. “We need them to have a fire alarm in these buildings, at the very least.”

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