Most sprinklers inside burned-down building were disabled

As a massive fire raged through Davis Finish Products early this month, Jackson County Fire District 3 Fire Marshal Hugh Holden wondered why the sprinkler system in the industrial building hadn't reined in the flames.

"In this case, I believe sprinklers would have stopped the fire," he said.

As soon as the flames died down on the evening of July 9, Holden checked system valves on the west side of the building and found they were turned off.

On Monday, July 12, Holden met with a sprinkler contractor who, on the day before the fire broke out, had evaluated the systems with Davis officials and an insurance company representative. The contractor confirmed that six of seven sprinkler systems in the roughly 142,000-square-foot building at 1790 Ave. G were turned off and that Davis and the insurance company knew the systems had been disabled.

The contractor told Holden he had identified about $10,000 of work needed to get Davis' sprinklers working and had presented his estimate.

"The main reason that sprinklers don't work to stop fires is if they are turned off," Holden said, pointing out studies that show in 53 percent of cases where sprinklers fail to stop flames, they have been turned off.

Holden noted that in Davis Finish Products' sprawling shop, multiple systems had been added at different times to serve various areas.

Owner Bud Davis told investigators that sprinklers had been turned off in areas of the building that weren't currently in use. Others had been turned off because of leaks caused when pipes froze during a cold snap in December.

Holden said many fire sprinklers don't have water in the pipes until sensors detect a fire and turn on the sprinkler closest to the flames. However, mechanisms that kept water out of the pipes until it was needed apparently had failed or been disabled at Davis' building, he said, allowing water to flow into the pipes and freeze.

Water-filled pipes provide fire protection, but are prone to freezing, cracking and leaking. That's why the company had turned off some of the main valves outside the building, Davis representatives told Holden.

Davis owners Bud and Cheryl Davis were unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Fire code in the district requires business owners to advise the fire marshal when a fire sprinkler system is out of service for any reason. Holden said companies could face reprimands for failing to comply with the code.

District investigators couldn't determine the cause of the fire, but found that it started in the southwest part of the building. Witnesses reported seeing smoke from a vent in that area and, when the flames were extinguished, the damage was most severe in that region, Holden said.

Oregon State Police investigators continued to interview people who were in the area when the fire started.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 541-776-4485, or e-mail

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