July 12, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 28

Shop fire causes borough to review policies

The Haines Borough has stepped up safety procedures and made changes to rules for after-hours use of the maintenance shop in the wake of an early-morning fire June 26 that caused up to $75,000 in damage.

Burning within a few feet of an acetylene tank and the shop’s lube station, the fire might havedestroyed the $700,000 structure, said facilities director Brian Lemcke.

The borough’s public works staff moved into the building in 2009.

Policy suggestions from a report written after the fire include requiring notice and approval of after-hours use of the shop, and a prohibition on cutting and welding after hours.

“People use the shop and other borough places to work on their own stuff. That policy may be changed or at least be dramatically modified,” said Lemcke.

Roc Ahrens, a 38-year local firefighter with training in fire investigation, wrote the report. It doesn’t pinpoint a suspected cause of the blaze, but places a welding station and a pile of treated lumber near its origin.

“Evidence points to the pile of treated lumber near the wall where the fire burned as the ‘fire load,’“ Ahrens wrote.

A 16-foot length of sheet metal, leaned up against a wall next to the lumber, likely deflected some of the fire’s heat, Ahrens said in an interview this week. “That piece of metal was critical to the minimal amount of damage it did. It was real a fortunate place for that to be stored.”

The fire ruptured a pressurized air hose, which in turn apparently helped feed the flames, causing extensive damage to lower sections of the building’s metal outer wall.

Ahrens said items around the fire had been moved when he started his investigation, but he found no evidence of arson and said the cause of the fire was not electrical. “It’s just housekeeping and common sense,” he said in an interview.

His recommendations include that wood and paint should be kept in separate areas, away from welding, cutting and grinding, and that the latter activities be limited to several hours before quitting time. The compressor should be turned off and valves on air hoses closed after hours, he said.

Ahrens’ report also recommends an “auto-dialer” heat and smoke alarm system be installed in the building, which houses heavy equipment during winter months.

Lemcke said borough employees would have monthly safety meetings and he’ll also seek a “courtesy inspection” by occupational safety and health officials aimed at identifying hazards.

The borough needs to protect its investment in the shop, he said. “It’s a nice building. To keep it nice, we’re going to implement a set of procedures and rules to prevent these kinds of things in the future. We need to make a cleaner and safer workplace.”

Immediate changes adopted by the borough include a required sign-in sheet for use of public works shops after hours, and a similar system for keeping track of use of tools. “All departments will raise their level of effort to maintain clean work space, clean vehicles and clean restrooms,” according to a borough memo.

Lemcke said the borough may never know for sure what started the fire. “It was an accident... We can’t identify a specific (person), but somebody made a mistake.”

Stickler Construction started on rehabilitation on the building last week, including scrubbing off a layer of soot from the ceiling, walls and other surfaces. Work will include replacing wall panels, wiring, insulation and a fabric over interior walls. “It’s going to be a big job,” Lemcke said.