NORTH LIBERTY– A fire destroyed the roof of a combined commercial and residential apartment building in North Liberty’s Beaver Kreek Centre last Tuesday.
Building 335, to the west of Pizza Ranch, Dairy Queen and Jewelry By Harold, is the location of JMI Laboratories and a single residential apartment on its first floor, with eight one- and two-bedroom apartments on the second story. All nine of the residences were occupied, but only one unit reportedly had someone inside at the time of the fire. They got out, and none of the residents were injured.
According to North Liberty Assistant Fire Chief Bryan Hardin, the North Liberty Fire Department (NLFD) was dispatched to the fire approximately 4:35 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22, and its first unit was on the scene just six minutes later to find heavy smoke and flames coming from the top rear of the building.
It took approximately four hours to completely extinguish the fire, but some firefighters remained on site, poking the structure for potential hot spots, or areas where materials might re-kindle, until about 11 p.m. Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon, one of those hot spots did flare up, but NLFD responded and quickly put it out, Hardin said.
The State Fire Marshal’s office was on hand Tuesday to assist the NLFD with its investigation into how the fire started. While the actual cause of the fire is undetermined, they believe the fire originated on one of the apartment’s outdoor balconies, ignited the exterior of the building and eventually spread to the attic area. While fire damage was mainly contained to the building’s attic and roof, ceilings collapsed into the upstairs residential units and there was extensive smoke damage throughout the whole building.
“There is also a lot of water damage,” Hardin said. “There’s actually some fire separation in the attic– it’s a layer or two of sheet rock– to help slow things down, and it did its job. At the west end of the building, most of the occupants’ belongings were fine.”
Even though there was no actual fire damage in the apartments, residents were displaced from their homes, and the Red Cross has been helping to relocate them. After the NLFD had finished its investigation, they determined that the structure was stable enough to allow firefighters back into the building to help residents collect some of their personal belongings.
The building is owned by Dr. Ronald Jones, founder and president of JMI Laboratories, the business that occupies the lower level of building 345 and also the lower part of the adjacent building. JMI is a microbiology research laboratory that produces information from bacteria sent from around the world, Jones said.
“Quite basically, we do testing on how well antibiotics kill bacteria,” Jones said. “This work is contracted from large and small pharmaceutical companies all over the world, and the information is used to approve for clinical use antibiotics for use in the United States and Europe.”
Dr. Jones said there were three critical things saved from harm in last week’s fire.
“The first is the people,” Jones said. “They were not compromised or hurt, which is the most important thing. Secondly, there is information we have accumulated over 12 years on our computers. All of that was saved because of the secured servers, and none of that absolutely priceless information was lost.”
The third crucial save, he said, was saving the bugs.
“We have a collection of bacteria in the hundreds of thousands of strains,” Dr. Jones said. “They are secured in minus 80 degree centigrade freezers (–112 Fahrenheit), huge freezers that weigh about one ton apiece.” Firefighters helped JMI employees wheel the freezers out of the burning building, through the parking lot and into JMI’s adjacent building. “We got them powered up with gas generators very quickly, so we didn’t lose any of those, either.”
In fact, Dr. Jones added, all of JMI’s equipment and services were transferred to its other building and was operational in less than 16 hours.
Dr. Jones also credited the built-in fire separation walls for helping to abate the fire and keep damage to a minimum.
“The contractor and developer of these buildings, Keith Hodapp, was here on the premises while it was still burning,” said Dr. Jones. “The fire ran into the major separation wall, on which the Iowa City Fire Department had been spraying water, and thankfully that kept it from spreading. We are so pleased with the work Keith has done in the whole complex. We are going to get it back as soon as possible.”
Most of Beaver Kreek Centre’s buildings were constructed between the late 1990s and early 2000s, before the city adopted the International Building Code (IBC) in 2002. The old Uniform Building and Fire Code only required multifamily residences containing 16 or more units, or buildings three stories in height, to have sprinkler systems. Anything built before the adoption of the 2000 IBC was grandfathered in without requiring sprinklers.
Now, said North Liberty Building Code Official Tom Palmer, North Liberty building codes require sprinkler systems for all multifamily buildings and commercial buildings that have even one residential unit. Requirements for other commercial buildings vary, depending on the building’s size, occupant load and intended use.
The National Fire Protection Association helps to write the IBC’s fire sprinkler standards, and that group has been working to require sprinkler systems in newly constructed single-family homes, as well, but a majority of Iowa cities have not adopted that requirement. The international codes are published every three years.
Assistant Fire Chief Hardin said whether a rental building has sprinkler systems or not, occupants must protect themselves and their belongings.
“I think this helps to stress the importance of having renters’ insurance. It’s very cost effective, but we see a lot of fires in rental apartments and none of their contents are covered,” Hardin said.
In the end, Hardin said, he was pleased with the department’s effort and is grateful for NLFD’s good working relationship with the entities providing mutual aid. Assisting the NLFD were units from Coralville, Iowa City, Solon, Swisher and Tiffin fire departments. Also responding to the scene were Johnson County Ambulance Service, police units from North Liberty, University Heights, the Iowa State Patrol and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office, and officials from the Red Cross.
Dr. Jones feels there was one clear hero in the effort, though, and he wanted to recognize her.
“What saved this from being a worse disaster was one young person named Donna, an employee of Dairy Queen. She walked out in the parking lot behind the buildings, saw the back part was on fire, and immediately called the fire department and then ran to the building to warn our employees,” Dr. Jones said. “She deserves the credit for saving the building.”