Why the Sugar House complex that caught fire is still burning

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The manner in which the north wing collapsed “like 9/11” contributed to persistent smoke, a fire chief said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) An apartment under construction continues to smolder and occasionally ignite near 1040 E. 2220 South at the Sugar House in Salt Lake City on Thursday, October 27, 2022. The fire, which began on The outbreak Tuesday night prompted the nightly evacuation of hundreds of nearby residents.

The acrid smell of smoke still filled the air nearly two days after a Sugar House project turned into an inferno late Tuesday and firefighters finally decided to demolish part of the building.

Salt Lake City firefighters rotated through the area early Thursday to extinguish hotspots of the still-burning Sugar Alley apartment building fire and mitigate smoke and fumes, Captain Shaun Mumedy said at a news conference.

He said the building could continue to smolder for at least the next 48 hours.

As of Thursday, the partially completed north wing of the U-shaped, eight-story residential and commercial building was mostly destroyed. The south wing was damaged; The roof was still burning Thursday, and many windows were blown out due to a “furnace effect” caused by the north wing fire.

The Salt Lake City building’s developers, Lowe Property Group, intend to “rebuild the property as it was designed,” a California-based spokesman said in an email early Thursday.

Meanwhile, questions remain about how the fire started and spread, and why nearby people may continue to see smoke. There’s also no dollar estimate of how much damage the fire caused.

Why is the building still burning?

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Partially collapsed scaffolding following a fire at a partially completed apartment complex continues to burn at the Sugar House, Thursday October 27, 2022.

The Sugar Alley residences are still smoldering in part because part of the building collapsed, Mumedy said.

The north wing burned before mostly collapsing in a way that “was very similar to 9/11,” Mumedy said. “You just have a collapse of a structure, and then there’s just this dense pile of rubble that just keeps smoldering for a long time.”

The roof of the south wing of the Sugar Alley development is still smoldering because of the material it was built from: thick plastic foam covered with a thin layer of tar, with a rubber membrane over it.

Such substances are used on the roofs of residential buildings throughout Salt Lake City, but are slow to melt and burn, Mumedy said.

How did it happen?

The Salt Lake City Fire Department is working with the Unified Fire Authority and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to determine the cause of the fire, but investigators have yet to come to a conclusion, Mumedy said.

“It’s going to be a long investigation,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday.

Does the risk of construction increase the risk of fire?

In general, buildings under construction are “absolutely” at higher risk of fire, the captain said. Much of this is because partially completed buildings often do not have fire protection such as sprinklers or the hydrant in front of the door is not yet connected.

Inside, construction workers also operate blowtorches, welding supplies and often large heaters, and each item poses a fire risk, he said.

Buildings under construction also have a lot of exposed wood, which can cause a structure to burst into flames “like a tinderbox,” Mumedy said.

Was the Sugar Alley location more dangerous?

The Sugar Alley development – located at 2188 Highland Drive in the heart of Sugar House’s business district – is adjacent to several other apartment buildings in a densely populated area.

For firefighters, Mumedy said, such areas can be particularly difficult because fire engines have a harder time getting in and out.

“And then, just the proximity of these other dwellings — they’re so close that a lot of that radiant heat poses a threat to them, too,” he said.

The fire is under further investigation as it continues to burn. No injuries had been reported as of Thursday.

Firefighters announced early Thursday evening that residents who were evacuated from the immediate area late Tuesday would be evicted overnight Thursday due to continued demolition and firefighting efforts.

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