Investigation into Docklands fire

Material used in the construction of a Docklands apartment building could be to blame for the rapid spread of a fire last month, which caused more than $5 million worth of damage.

The fire, at the Lacrosse building on LaTrobe St, started in the early hours of November 25 after an air-conditioning compressor unit on a second floor balcony overheated due to equipment being “inappropriately” stored behind it.

The fire quickly spread vertically up the building to 21st floor, with the combustible source appearing to be the cladding on the balcony walls.

Metropolitan Fire Brigade acting assistant fire officer and acting director of fire safety Michael Coombes said that, while the balconies were constructed of reinforced concrete, the side wall separating the balcony from the bedroom of the same unit was not.

“We are currently investigating this matter and are trying to develop the reasons for the way the fire appeared to use this construction to spread to the roof, and particularly the speed at which it occurred,” Mr Coombes said.

According to a Victorian Building Authority spokesperson, the external walls of apartment towers aren’t required to be fire resistant.

“Under the Building Code of Australia, in apartments of Type A construction (more than three storeys) the external walls of the building are not required to be fire-resistant if they are non-loadbearing and are situated three metres or more from a fire source feature,” the spokesperson said.

Lacrosse was developed through a partnership between Pan Urban and Charter Hall and was designed by Elenberg Fraser.

Elenberg Fraser Associate director Reade Dixon said the company had little information about the fire and said it would be premature to speculate further.

“As a leading designer of high-rise residential buildings we are confident with our design for the building. Our design and our selection of relevant materials was approved by the responsible authority as appropriate and compliant,” Mr Dixon said.

“We cannot comment on what was actually installed in the building as decisions would have been made by the building contractor during construction. However, we would expect that the building was properly inspected and approved prior to occupation.”

Apart from the material used in construction of the building combustible items on the balconies may have contributed to the spread of the fire.

“We know that the corner where the fires occurred accommodated the air conditioning cassette, which comprises some plastic components. There was also evidence of other combustibles including chairs and, on one level, a small gas cylinder,” Mr Coombes said.

“Much of what was on the balconies was consumed in the fire prior to the brigade and the internal sprinklers extinguishing the fire, but from all accounts and given the situation on other non-affected balconies we believe there were combustible items on the balconies.”

Around 70 fire fighters were called to the building around 2.30am on November 25, battling the blaze for around 35 minutes before getting it under control and searching the building to check for occupants.

Around 400 residents were safely evacuated from the building, with no serious injuries reported.

Sarah Jane Pell lives on the 19th floor of the Lacrosse building and said the alarm systems in the top half of the building did not go off during the fire.

“I was woken up by my Swedish housemates, who were so stunned they forgot how to speak English,” Dr Pell said.

She said the group had no time to grab shoes or belongings and ran down 38 flights of stairs to escape the fire. They only began to hear fire alarms when they reached the 10th floor.

“I watched the fire from the ground and was aware it was catching from one balcony to the other rapidly, I saw that progression happen so rapidly,” Dr Pell said.

Many of the building’s 400 residents spent time in makeshift emergency accommodation at Etihad Stadium following the blaze, with most spending around 15 hours at the stadium.

Etihad Stadium executive officer Paul Sergeant said the stadium was part of a combined effort involving Victoria Police, Red Cross, the City of Melbourne and State Government services.

“Obviously we are a big space on the CBD doorstep so it was a great feeling to help out a group in some urgent need,” Mr Sergeant said.

“The evacuees comprised young families, children, including some infants, and even pets.”

Most of the fire damage to the building was to the balconies and external infrastructure, with the tower’s sprinkler system preventing the fire from spreading further internally.

However, there was extensive smoke and water damage to many of the apartments in the building and, given the building’s owners corporation does not have contents insurance, uninsured residents could face hefty repair bills.

At the time of printing the building’s residents had been unable to return to their homes.

According to Barry Plant director Daniel Cole residents living in the apartments directly affected by the fire were already looking to lease new properties in Docklands.

“Some might not have access to their properties for up to six months,” he said.



May 4th, 2022 - Abby Crawford
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