Firefight: Lightweight Construction Posing Deadly Risk to Firefighters

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The remnants of a half million dollar home destroyed in Loudoun County in 2008. (credit: Loudoun County Fire Dept.)

The remnants of a half million dollar home destroyed in Loudoun County in 2008. (credit: Loudoun County Fire Dept.)

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Loudoun County Fire Capt. Micah Kiger and his team nearly perished in a fast-spreading blaze that destroyed a half-million dollar home on Meadowood Court in 2008.

The flashover that trapped the men was remarkably similar to a fatal fire that occurred just one year earlier in Prince William County. That blaze claimed the life of firefighter Kyle Wilson.

In both cases, firefighters say “lightweight construction” was to blame.

Life and Death

This issue stems from the pressures facing contractors to build homes at a blistering pace to meet the demand of ever increasing urban sprawl.

“Probably 75 or 80 percent of construction in the area are all lightweight construction,” Kiger estimates.

And these methods and the materials used are causing homes to burn far faster than their predecessors.

Firefighter Mayday Radio Call

Fire officials say homes built using traditional, non-lightweight construction methods will typically give firefighters 30 minutes to battle a blaze from the interior before conditions deteriorate to the point where an evacuation becomes necessary. Now officials says these quickly built homes can experience a catastrophic total collapse within eight to 15 minutes.

“The way that the housing market is, I think that that’s probably what we’re going to see from here on out,” Kiger said.

Homes Burning Three Times Faster

Firefighters are furious over the methods and are pushing for legislation to make indoor sprinklers mandatory in all newly constructed homes.

“We’ve got to prevent that fire from either going to flashover or certainly diminishing it,” said Loudoun County Fire Chief Keith Brower. “Sprinklers would be the answer.”

And that is where firefighters say they are facing one of their fiercest battles to date. Home builders are pushing back saying the high cost of safety has a direct correlation to their methods.

“We can build a house that can withstand anything you can think of,” said Mike Toalson, chief executive officer of the Homebuilders Association of Virginia. “The problem is, if we built to that standard, nobody could afford a home in America.”

The question is whether Toalson’s assertion applies directly to indoor sprinklers.

A Critical Need

Firefight Series

Part 1: Dangerous Battle Raging Between Contractors, Firefighters

Part 2: Lightweight Construction Posing Deadly Risk to Firefighters

Part 3: High Cost of Safety At Heart of Battle Between Firefighters, Contractors

Part 4: Profits, Politics Leave Firefighters at Potentially Deadly Disadvantage

Nearly Fatal Fire in Leesburg

WNEW’s Kevin Patrick contributed to this report. Follow him and WNEW on Twitter.

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