By Kristen Tribe | Wise County Messenger
In the early morning hours of Dec. 26, the Downtown Mini Mall on the east side of the Denton square was destroyed by a raging, four-alarm fire.
Although no one was hurt and fire walls prevented the fire from tearing through the entire block, the disaster weighed on the mind of Decatur Deputy Fire Chief Deroy Bennett.
“Our square is no different than anywhere in the state of Texas or anywhere in the United States,” he said. “They’re older construction buildings, and certainly they’re susceptible to fire just like a new building.”
Bennett explained that most of the buildings on the Decatur square have thick rock walls, which are considered “divisional walls.” They may not meet current standards as a fire wall, but they act as fire walls, preventing, or slowing the spread of fire, between buildings. Sprinkler systems provide another level of protection, and in recent years, developer Mark Moran has insisted on installing them in his Decatur square properties. “Mark is adamant about it, and he understands the significance of it,” Bennett said. “We talked about it a lot after the Fuzzy’s fire.”
The Downtown Mini Mall in Denton did not have a sprinkler system, but Bennett said without a sprinkler, the Fuzzy’s fire, instead of an inconvenience, could have been devastating.
In October 2012, a grease fire started late one afternoon in the Fuzzy’s kitchen, sending flames shooting up the wall.
“When it went up the wall, it got in right at the ceiling, and that’s where it hit the sprinkler heads and set them off,” Bennett explained. “When we got there, the fire was out.”
Decatur firefighters helped clear the building and clean up water, and by 8:30 a.m. the next day, they were able to re-open.
“That night they worked, cleaned, removed all the food and brought new food in. They were shut down for basically 14 hours,” Bennett said. “If that fire had not been under a sprinkler system, it could have spread heavier smoke, had more water damage and closed them for days.
“Or worst case scenario if that same fire happened in the middle of the night [without a sprinkler system] and the fire had a progression period, before notification or arrival of the fire department, then that’s when you end up with fires like you did in Denton.”
Moran said a fire on a town square is like a fire on an airplane: “it’s going to affect everybody.” The developer largely responsible for revitalizing downtown Decatur said the Denton blaze hit close to home.
“I bet I received 15 text messages that day about it,” he said. “It’s history, and it’s not like we have partners … but everyone on the square is a partner if you want to be or not.”
As Moran has purchased properties on the Decatur square, he has installed sprinkler systems as buildings were remodeled or in between tenants. On the west side of the square, a sprinkler system stretches from Fuzzy’s to the site of the old Majestic Theater, although Simply COCO has sprinklers in the back only.
On the east side of the square, there are sprinkler systems in Rooster’s and in every business through the north corner in what was once home to Nell’s Nook.
Moran said Tuesday he plans to get a bid this week to install sprinklers in the building on the south side that formerly housed A Ray of Flowers and the bed and breakfast on the second floor, as well as expanding the sprinkler system in Simply COCO.
“A whole square can burn up,” he said. “That was our motivation to do it.”
Moran said he recognizes it’s an expensive project with the largest cost being the system riser and tapping into the city’s water main, which he said can total $60,000 to $70,000. In Moran’s properties on the east and west sides of the square, one riser, which is the vertical pipe that “rises” from the water supply to the pipes in the ceiling, serves the pipes in neighboring spaces.
As other property owners contemplate installing sprinkler systems, Moran is hopeful the city will consider helping by lowering the cost to tap into its water main. He also wondered if there might be grant money available for such projects.
“It’s a big cost, and I understand that,” Moran said.
Decatur Fire Chief Mike Richardson said sprinkler systems are designed to hold a fire in place until firefighters arrive. He explained that an important part of his department’s training is teaching firefighters the unique elements of construction from that time period.
“That gives them insight to where to apply water and ventilation. Even though they have thick rock walls between each one, holes have been poked through for pipes, and joists used for second floors often connect and touch each other in the wall,” Richardson said. “It’s just being aware of those things because it can cause a fire to spread quickly.”
Richardson explained that even if several buildings have sprinkler systems but some do not, the points at which those structures come together can create a fire load from the unsprinkled portion that overcomes the design load in the sprinkled section.
The chief said the key is to be aware of where those places exist.
“If we do have a heavy fire in an unsprinkled building, we’ll utilize large firestream appliances and overpower the amount of burning going on at the junction of buildings,” he said.
If firefighters can’t go inside to knock down the fire, they may have to back up one or two buildings to establish a line where they can utilize large streams of water and ventilate the building, in an effort to stop the fire once it gets to that point, he said.
Richardson said it’s important to remember it’s not simply the building owner and single business being protected by a sprinkler system.
“It’s also protecting revenues and the movement of money inside a community and jobs,” he said. “That needs to be factored into the value of the save.”