An investigation into the cause of a fire that ruined a Grand Forks apartment building Sunday morning, Feb. 16, has been completed, but a cause of the blaze was unable to be determined.
The fire at 321 N. Fourth St., an 18-unit apartment building, was determined to have started near the stove in a lower-level apartment. But due to structural instability and significant damage as a result of the fire, which made it unsafe for investigators to go into the kitchen, the exact cause was classified as undetermined.
Fire marshal Matt Hageman said such classifications are given to fires when the cause can't be narrowed down to just one possibility. He said investigators were able to determine where the fire started by finding the area with the heaviest damage. A caved-in ceiling in that unit kept investigators from investigating further, he said.
Now that the investigation has concluded, the building will be turned back over to the owner. Hageman said typically, homeowners go through their insurance to determine what is covered and make a decision about how to proceed with the building from there.
The building was constructed in 1941 and used a balloon frame construction typical for buildings of that time, Hageman said. With a balloon frame, the structure of the walls are built with long, vertical studs that extend uninterrupted to the roof.
Hageman said that without platforms in between each floor to slow a blaze, it's not uncommon for balloon frame residences to burn quickly.
"That's what happened here, too," Hageman said. "It started in the basement, got into a balloon frame of it and went all the way up to the attic."
During the last inspection of 321 N. Fourth St. by the city and the Grand Forks Fire Department, a number of violations were noted which appear to have been corrected. Among the corrected violations cited by both the city and the fire department were missing fire alarms. The building was issued a certificate of occupancy stating its compliance with city codes on May 17, 2018.
The building's next regular city inspection was scheduled for 2022.
The fire alarms in 321 N. Fourth St. were certainly working the morning of Feb. 16, Hageman said, and credits the fact that Sunday's fire wasn't a greater tragedy than it already is to that smoke detection system.
And since he said he's not aware of a way to retrofit 1940s-era balloon frame residences to be safer from fires, making sure fire alarms are functioning properly is the greatest precaution residents can take.
"Smoke detectors save lives," he said.