The Roof, the Roof, the Roof Is on Fire!

Illustration by Aaron KratenBob Dingwall knows fire. Before he retired to Huntington Beach, Dingwall spent more than 30 years—including a decade as a company commander—putting out conflagrations in Los Angeles.

"I would say that I have gone to more major fires than everybody in the Huntington Beach Fire Department combined," said Dingwall, now 70. "In the old days, I belonged to what we called the 300 club because we had 300 calls per month, or about 10 per day." According to Dingwall, he helped extinguish about 50 fires per month, about a quarter of which involved multistory buildings, the most challenging fires to fight.

So when Dingwall and his colleagues on the Huntington Beach Planning Commission began reviewing the city's plans for Pacific City—a 31-acre project that includes a hotel, several shops and 516 condominiums—he was on the lookout for tall buildings. He discovered that Pacific City included plans for seven four-story condominium complexes that were, he says, too close together, too tall and accessible only by a single narrow, winding road.

His diagnosis: Pacific City is a disaster waiting to happen.

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Dingwall charges that firefighters' ladders aren't long enough to reach the tops of Pacific City's proposed buildings. "These hook-and-ladder trucks are big, long monsters," Dingwall said. "On a narrow road, they have barely enough room to get in. The Pacific City plans call for trees to be planted next to the buildings, and that means the truck has to park farther from the building." Dingwall begins to catalog the elements of what sounds like a problem in your sophomore-year geometry class—right angle represented by the building, the ladder as hypotenuse, etc.—and reaches a relatively simple conclusion: "There are fourth-story units that the aerial truck ladder will not be able to reach."

"If there is an incident in those buildings—and eventually there will be—it will take extra time for rescuers to get there," Dingwall added. "Meanwhile, in a fire, the building is going to be filling with smoke and unburned residue that is hot and poisonous. The firefighters have to get to the roof quickly to open a hole and let out the poisonous gas or rescue people trapped up there. Every second counts."

Ron Satterfield, a former Fountain Valley fire marshal who lives near the site of the proposed Pacific City project, agrees. "This project meets the zoning requirements set by the city," Satterfield said. "But in my opinion, these buildings are too close together. When you get roof fires in apartment complexes like that, the fire jumps from one building to another. And the fire department will not be able to get their truck close enough to reach the top of those buildings."

Because the condominiums will be made of wood, Satterfield said, they would be more susceptible to fire than taller buildings such as the nearby concrete-and-steel Waterfront Hilton hotel. "These buildings won't have the same protections as hotels or high-rises that are built of steel," he said. "They are going to put in sprinklers and smoke detectors, but that's it. It's like being in a mousetrap: too many people in too small an area."

Satterfield says he tried to warn city officials about the potential danger but was ignored. Dingwall shares his frustration. "I raised my concerns with the developer, with the planning department, the planning manager, and the developer's consultants," he said. "Everybody said, 'Well, the fire department approved this.'"

Huntington Beach Fire Department Chief Duane Olson did not return phone calls for this story.

Dingwall knows well the can-do mentality of your average firefighter. "Firemen being firemen," he says, "I'm sure they will put the fire out one way or another. Somebody might die in the process, but they will eventually get the fire out. But I just can't see building traps for them."

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