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Massive downtown L.A. fire prompts call for probe of wood frame

City Councilman Bob Blumenfield raised questions about L.A. fire's implications for wood-framed buildings

In the aftermath of Monday’s harrowing fire that reduced a half-built apartment complex in downtown Los Angeles to ashes, a city councilman introduced a motion Friday questioning whether wood-frame construction contributed to the devastating blaze.

Investigators are still sorting through the debris left behind by the conflagration that razed the seven-story, 526-unit project and caused significant damage to the adjacent 110 Freeway and surrounding buildings. Authorities have said it may be weeks, if not months, before they can pinpoint a cause.

City Councilman Bob Blumenfield in a motion Friday raised questions about the fire’s implications for wood-framed buildings that are increasingly used throughout the city. The destroyed apartment complex, the Da Vinci, had five wooden-frame stories sitting on top of two concrete-walled floors. In the motion, he asked city officials to take a hard look at whether further restrictions should be placed on wood-frame constructions for residential buildings.

Currently, the height limit for wood-framed apartment buildings is five stories. “The fact that the building went up like it did begs the question, do we have the best, most appropriate standards?” Blumenfield, who represents parts of the San Fernando Valley, said in an interview.

The councilman said he hoped Monday’s blaze, which caused tens of millions of dollars in damage, would be a “catalyst” for discussion about the safety of wood-frame buildings.

Luke Zamperini, spokesman for the city’s Department of Building and Safety, said wood-frame apartment buildings “are the most common, both past and present and in all neighborhoods.” Fire experts said while wood-frame buildings are just as safe as steel-framed or concrete buildings when completed, they are highly vulnerable for a few months during construction before fire safety measures such as sprinklers and non-combustible walls are installed.

“You have a building that’s basically a pile of wooden sticks. When you get a fire going it’s going to take the whole building out,” said John DeHaan, a veteran forensic fire scientist. “It’s like fighting a wildland fire: All you can do is slow it down until it runs out of fuel.”

DeHaan said destructive fires at wooden-frame buildings under construction are becoming increasingly common in the U.S. and elsewhere as developers turn to wood frames for multi-story structures because they are cheaper and more environmentally friendly.

He said Los Angeles’ proposed review of building codes was welcome. “Fire safety progresses one disaster at a time,” he said.

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