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Editorial: Confederate Home's fire offers important lessons

Confederate Home fire (copy)

Charleston firefighters shut down parts of Broad Street as they responded to a fire at the Confederate Home and College on Tuesday. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

It might seem odd to find good news after a fire breaks out inside one of Charleston’s most historically significant buildings, but it’s there — not only because of the Charleston Fire Department’s effective response but also because of its actions months before the blaze began.

On Tuesday afternoon, a caller reported a fire at the Confederate Home and College, one of Broad Street’s most recognizable landmarks. Charleston firefighters were on the scene within three minutes and began extinguishing the fire and searching the building, which includes several apartments. The blaze was quickly contained, limiting damage to a few apartments near Broad Street.

Kristopher King of the Preservation Society of Charleston, whose office is a few blocks west of the Confederate Home, heard the commotion and was among many people who gathered on Broad Street out of concern.

“Historic buildings present a real challenge to the fire department,” Mr. King said. “We watched the fire department’s response. It was just so impressive.”

Chief Fire Marshal Mike Julazadeh said if firefighters had arrived only a few minutes later, the damage could have been much worse, as fire grows exponentially and Tuesday’s blaze almost reached the home’s common attic space. Indeed, the lack of a timely response was a big reason why Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris suffered such extensive damage last year.

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But the Charleston Fire Department and the Confederate Home’s governing board also deserve credit for their proactive steps. All residents got out safely Tuesday, and that was no accident. The department’s fire marshals and board ensured residents received fire training just last year. “People knew what the alarm sounded like and what the evacuation plan was,” Mr. Julazadeh said.

And that training came on top of the city’s routine inspections of apartment buildings. Mr. Julazadeh noted the building’s historic nature both helped and hurt: The thick and sturdy plaster and lath walls of the apartment fire contained the heat of the blaze more thoroughly than modern construction, but it also lacked a sprinkler system, which could have helped extinguish the fire earlier.

So Tuesday’s blaze should serve as a warning to other apartment owners to ensure that not only are their buildings up to code but that their tenants also understand what to do if and when an alarm goes off.

While Charleston’s historic fabric has suffered major damage from earthquakes and hurricanes, nothing has damaged the city quite like fires. Downtown has endured five great blazes that consumed multiple blocks and dozens of buildings. Fortunately, those sorts of catastrophic fires appear to be a thing of the past, but Tuesday reminds us that fire remains a major threat, one we must continue to plan for.

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