Fayette County

Too close for comfort? Compact neighborhoods see spreading fires

Lexington firefighter Anthony Porco hosed a smoldering fire from a ladder on Stansberry Cove in Lexington on May 17.
Lexington firefighter Anthony Porco hosed a smoldering fire from a ladder on Stansberry Cove in Lexington on May 17. palcala@herald-leader.com

A Lexington council woman says she will meet with Lexington fire officials and planning staff to determine what can be done to protect homes and help firefighters in neighborhoods where homes are close together.

Since September 2015, at least three fires have occurred in neighborhoods where the distance between homes was less than 10 feet.

Urban County Councilwoman Jennifer Scutchfield, whose district includes neighborhoods where such fires have occurred, said this week that she wants to know if changes need to be made so fires in neighborhoods don’t spread from house to house. Moreover, there are also growing concerns that firefighters aren’t able to get their fire engines into some subdivisions because the streets are too narrow.

“I’ve had people in my neighborhood associations who have said that if there was a fire in their neighborhood, there was no way a fire truck could get down their street,” Scutchfield said. “We can’t change what’s there now. But I want to make sure that if there are lessons that can be learned, that we make changes if changes are needed.”

Brian Tanksley of Rainbow International, a Lexington company that specializes in fire and water restoration, said “there has definitely been an uptick in roughly the last 10 years” in fires that spread from one structure to the next.

“There’s definitely dozens, it’s definitely going to keep rising, the way they keep building things,” Tanksley said.

The most recent example came May 17 in a fire at 625 Stansberry Cove, where one house was destroyed and four others were damaged. One house was 6 feet, 9 inches from the house where the fire started; the distance of the exterior wall of the house on the opposite side was 9 feet, 8 inches. That fire occurred in Scutchfield’s council district.

“They’re built just too close together,” Battalion Chief Jeff Nantz said at the Stansberry scene.

On April 4, a fire that started at 668 Smugglers Notch in Lexington spread to a house at 664. Both had charred wood and melted vinyl siding. The narrowest separation between the two was 9 feet, 2 inches.

In September, one house was destroyed and six others were damaged on Hibernia Pass. Fighting that blaze was complicated because there was a delay in getting water on the fire due to a malfunction in a pump of the first engine to arrive, but a second engine was close behind.

In the past year, flames spread from one house to another in at least three fires in subdivisions around Hays Boulevard and Blackford Parkway in southeast Lexington, Nantz said.

“That’s beginning to be commonplace,” Nantz said immediately following the Stansberry fire. “We’re going to see more and more of this as time goes on.”

State and national building codes allow single-family houses to be built just 6 feet apart. The Lexington fires all occurred in neighborhoods that allow homes to be built close together. The desire to preserve farmland and the desire of developers to put as many houses into a development as possible are resulting in more houses built to minimum spacing standards.

Philip Westgate, whose house was one of the homes damaged in the Stansberry Cove fire, moved from Michigan to the neighborhood five years ago. The University of Kentucky assistant professor of biostatistics was surprised by the close proximity of the neighboring houses when he bought the property, “but I don’t think we actually thought of a fire happening and jumping across the houses.”

The May 17 fire damaged the vinyl exterior, charred the upper part of the house, and there was water damage inside, Westgate said. Fortunately, thanks to the firefighters, the blaze “didn’t do nearly as much damage to the house as I thought it would do.”

Lexington Battalion Chief Joe Best said the department does not specialize in planning issues and referred all questions about the fires to the city’s planning department.

Jim Duncan, director of Lexington’s Division of Planning, said he has not heard any discussion about building houses farther apart.

“The bottom line is, whatever the distance is between these units, they still have to meet the state residential building code,” Duncan said. “The closer the units are, the higher the fire-rated material needs to be that is used on the exterior.

“This is all in the larger goal to maximize the urban land and preserve the agricultural land. And maximizing the construction on a building site is one of the best ways to do that,” Duncan said.

In compact neighborhoods, the consequences of a fire that goes from house to house can be devastating. An example is the Waldo Canyon fire, a forest fire that leveled sections of Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2012, said Nelson Bryner, chief fire researcher for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. That federal agency issued a report about the fire.

“There was a section in one of the subdivisions in Colorado Springs where the fire got into it and it took out blocks,” Bryner said. “The issue there is that most of these structures were about six feet apart. You saw that when these structures are a limited distance apart, the fire can spread more quickly.”

In 2004, NIST conducted experiments involving two 16-foot structures clad in vinyl siding that simulated neighboring houses six feet apart. The outside walls for each structure included windows.

In one test, typical home furnishings were ignited in one “home” and the fire spread was recorded, along with other data.

In less than five minutes, flames shattered the window of the home with the original fire, spread across the gap, and ignited the exterior of the second structure.

Another test measured the effects of a fire-resistant barrier in the exterior wall. Flames from the first structure again reached the second in about four minutes, but this time, the gypsum barrier prevented the fire from significantly damaging the second home.

Westgate, the homeowner on Stansberry Cove, said he doesn’t blame developers and homebuilders for building compactly.

“It’s a business. People build houses as a business,” he said. “It is what it is, but I’d say in the future, if they could, I would say they should keep them from building so close.”