I-Team: Firefighters warn new homes burn down quickly in fire

APEX, N.C. (WTVD) -- Despite advancements in technology and stricter building codes, firefighters are sounding the alarm about how fast it takes a newly constructed home to burn down in a fire.

"Your home is perfectly safe, but your home is not designed to burn," Apex Fire Chief Keith McGee told the ABC11 I-Team. "Therefore whenever it is on fire and firefighters have to enter it, it is more dangerous on us trying to combat the fire, not to mention you have to get out faster because of the speed at which the fire grows is so much faster today than yesterday."

The Triangle has seen a glut of new builds in the housing market - more than 40,000 since 2010 just in Wake County, with Apex and Wake Forest seeing the most growth.

McGee, whose family lives in a new development, said he wants families to develop easy and quick exit plans.

"I'm thinking to myself if there was a fire in my own home, the fire chief's home, I'm not sure how my guys would be able to come get me out," McGee explained. "The biggest message we can have is please don't try to fight the fire. Come out, call 911, because the faster we get there, the faster we can put water to the fire."

"My fire extinguisher wasn't going to do anything"

Apex resident Josh McMillian can identify with the chief's warnings; it was last summer when McMillian saved his neighbor's life from a house fire on Harbor Haven Drive.

"As soon as I got the fire extinguisher and come outside, you could see the fire getting worse automatically," McMillian recalled to ABC11. "My fire extinguisher wasn't going to do anything for the blaze in the backyard."

Instead, McMillian banged on the neighbor's door, got him out of the house, and together they watched the townhome go up in flames in a matter of minutes.

"Just a feeling of a rush, of an adrenaline rush. You don't know what's going to happen."

Nearly a year later, McMillian said he's had time to process the events of that night and a new fear has provoked action in his own home.

"If my house went up, I'd barely have enough time (to get out). It's get out as soon as possible. As soon as possible.

I-Joists and OSBs

The townhomes on Harbor Haven Drive are like many in Apex and throughout the Triangle - strong and sturdy new construction made up of newer engineered wood products.

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Specifically, the chief pointing out two main components: engineered I-joists and oriented strand boards (OSBs). They're both made in part from wood chips compressed and glued together.

Paul Kane, CEO of Raleigh/Wake County Home Builders Association, said the I-joists and OSBs date back to the 1960s but emerged as industry standards in 1990s because of their versatility in meeting homeowners requests, including open floor plans. He said they've also become a popular choice because they're "greener" and more sustainable.

"Ultimately, it is greener and sustainable because you're not taking as many trees to make them," Kane explained to ABC11. "To get that big piece of lumber, it's going to come from a really large tree. Then it has to be milled down to dimensions and there's waste associated with that. There's almost no waste associated with OSB products - in fact, OSB is often made from waste."

Chief McGee, while acknowledging the engineered wood products' strength and structural integrity, warned they're susceptible to fires because they're less dense as traditional lumber.

"The thicker, the more mass the more dense something is, the slower it will burn."

A third component of new homes, vinyl siding, is something the chief said he's also concerned about because it can melt and expose the OSB's much quicker than masonry, brick or fiber cement siding.

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Preparing for an Emergency

Indeed, the data shows new homes are much safer than many older homes because of the advancements of technology and the stricter standards for building codes. In the United States and in North Carolina, the number of home fire deaths per year are down significantly since 1981, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Kane, whose Home Builders Association represents some of the largest and most successful builders in the Triangle, also maintains that a series of fire prevention measures are built into the "house system," whereby OSBs and I-joists are covered by sheetrock, drywall, or built-in ways that mitigate the spread of a fire.

"If a builder is concerned about nail pops in hardwood floors, fire safety is going to be above that," Kane quipped, noting that builders have every reason to protect the home they're building even if they're not the ones living in them. "Nothing is more important than a safe home."

When it comes to fire codes, electrical wiring is far more protected with new coatings than in decades past, and smoke detectors must be placed prominently throughout the house.

"In fact, the building codes were just updated this year," Kane explained. "Smoke detectors have to be interconnected and they can be hardwired or wireless because of some of the new advances in technology."

Still, Kane agrees with Chief McGee that families must prepare for emergencies and have fire safety plans.

"Homes today are built safer than they ever have, but that's no reason to believe those things don't happen to you."

The National Fire Protection Association lists the following as effective ways to make a fire escape plan for your family:

  • Plan two ways to escape from each room

  • Make sure all doors and windows leading outside open easily

  • Identify secondary routes - a window onto an adjacent roof or a collapsible ladder from upper-story windows

  • If you live in a multi-story building, plan to use the stairs - never the elevator

  • Designate an outside meeting place a safe distance from the house where everyone should meet

  • Practice getting out with your eyes closed, crawling low to the floor and keeping your mouth covered

  • Practice closing doors behind you

  • Practice how to "stop, drop and roll" if your clothes catch on fire

  • Practice testing door handles to see if they are hot before opening them

  • Teach children never to hide during a fire, and how to escape on their own in case you can't help them
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