Fire walls help prevent spread of catastrophe

Friday, August 22, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 5:16 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

The fire at the Olde Heidelberg Restaurant was a tragedy to be sure. But further disaster was averted by a masonry structure that is a standard building practice now but wasn’t when many of Columbia’s buildings were erected.

Helping the firefighters contain the blaze was a concrete fire wall installed in the 2001 renovation of Osama’s.

As the restaurant burned in the pre-dawn hours Monday, the fire wall prevented severe structural damage to surrounding properties.

Fire walls can be vertical or horizontal and are designed with ratings specific to each structure to limit the spread of fire and smoke. The fire walls protect separate structures from spreading fire, said Rich Sternadori, chief building inspector for the Columbia Public Works Department’s Division of Protective Inspection.

Using masonry as a barrier, fire walls protect contiguous buildings and residential units that are common in downtown areas. Buildings sharing a common roof and structural side walls are especially vulnerable to the spread of fire.

Although fire walls were mandated for Columbia buildings by the 1950s, century-old structures without major renovation have eluded updates in building and fire codes.

Shakespeare’s Pizza hails from the same era as The Olde Heidelberg but does not have a fire wall because it doesn’t directly border other storefronts. Owner Kurt Mirtsching said Shakespeare’s depends on an alarm system and its compliance with fire department codes. In the wake of the Heidelberg fire, Mirtsching met with fire marshals to ensure Shakespeare’s is protected beyond codes.

“You want to keep everything in good repair,” Mirtsching said.

Sweeping damage caused by major city fires like the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 caused building and insurance companies to lose money and seek new building models. The fire wall standard became more common in the 1920s and 1930s in an effort to avert devastating downtown fires.

While masonry is an expensive requirement to prevent the spread of fire, it has been used in construction for more than 100 years.

The city’s fire and protective inspection departments often experience overlapping codes and authority, yet they coordinate enforcement.

The fire department has the authority to enter public buildings on walk-in inspections and look for breaches in existing fire walls. Building inspectors must issue search warrants, building permits, or use their power of entry in emergencies.

The fire wall protects units surrounding the site of a fire. The requirements of a fire wall are dependent on the size, use and materials of a structure.

A fire wall must withstand a minimum of two hours of fire damage, depending on the structure. This fire wall rating must be consistent throughout the building materials.

“When you’re building a wall out of studs and sheet rock, the fire rating is only as good as the assembly of its products,” Sternadori said.

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