Wellington fire sparks look at sprinkler rules

Fire investigators will inspect the damage at a Wellington storage facility this morning after a huge blaze ripped through the building yesterday.

The fire, one of the largest Wellington has seen for a long time, burned out the entire top floor of the Kiwi Self Storage unit in Kilbirnie.

It started about 12.45am yesterday and reached a "fifth alarm" - the most extreme end of the Fire Service's response scale.

At one point, 80 firefighters were working to contain the blaze, with owners of belongings stored in the unit - which did not have sprinklers - watching on in horror.

The top floor of the building was destroyed by the blaze, while the ground floor appeared to have suffered only smoke and water damage.

Fire service central communications shift manager Mike Wanoa said fire investigators would investigate the cause of the blaze today.

The fire was finally extinguished shortly after midnight, and crews remained on the scene overnight.

"They had rotating crews going from then on just to make sure things were dampened down.'

Only one fire crew remained at the site this morning.

The fire has prompted calls for sprinklers to be installed in large commercial buildings.

United Future MP Peter Dunne, Minister of Internal Affairs, last night said he would discuss with appropriate officials the merits of making sprinkler systems mandatory in commercial buildings.

"In principle, yes I agree to the desirability of having sprinklers installed in all commercial buildings, and to this end I will raise the issue with officials."

The unit razed by fire was one of five belonging to Kiwi Self Storage at the site. Its top floor was destroyed by the blaze, while the ground floor appeared to have suffered only smoke and water damage.

As crews worked to contain the fire, Wellington Fire Service assistant area commander Paul Smith issued a statement strongly recommending that sprinklers be installed in large commercial buildings.

"Our advice is for commercial property owners of large buildings to install sprinklers - that way any fire that does start is either doused by the sprinklers or stopped from spreading until firefighters arrive."

Andrew Fraser, director of the parent company which owns Kiwi Self Storage said sprinklers were not installed at the storage unit because it was not industry practice to do so.

Smoke detectors, which were connected to an alarm system, alerted people to the blaze.

"We have also on-site managers that live at the facility. They were obviously aware of the alarm and immediately contacted the fire department."

The company would likely be discussing the use of sprinklers in its units, he said.

New Zealand's representative for the Self Storage Association of Australasia, Keith Edwards, said extensive systems were already in place to ensure all storage facilities had appropriate fire alert systems.

"Fire experts" such as engineers and the council must sign off on a fire alert system at a storage facility building, he said.

He refused to say whether sprinklers should be mandatory for storage facilities, as it was not his area of expertise.

"Bearing in mind, you do get a lot of false alarms with sprinklers and it could cause a lot of damage without need be," Mr Edwards said.

Up in flames

* A cinematographer who worked on Sir Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Alex Funke, feared a couple of Oscar awards had been lost in the blaze. The awards were for the Two Towers and Return of the King. He also had some Bafta awards stored in his unit, as well as camera equipment, and told APNZ he had been unaware the facility did not have sprinklers."It's very upsetting. You put stuff in a storeroom and you say 'Well, it's safe, nobody's going to steal it, it's never going to burn down'. Well obviously next time put it in a place with sprinklers."

* Martin Cahill had boxes of books and items which belonged to his parents inside the storage facility. "I just want to find out how it started." His items were at "ground zero" and would have been destroyed, he said.

* Pauline and Darrell Waiti had stored a lot of personal items in a unit for safe keeping while they relocated cities. "We knew we just had to come and pick it all up and put it in the truck, and its gone now. I've just found out that there's no sprinklers in there, and just really gutted. It's really heart-wrenching," Mrs Waiti said.


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