Is it fire proof?

With the memory of the 2009 Masonic Temple still fresh, the prospect of another large structure such as the Coburn Block catching fire is not something the Dunkirk Fire Department wants to see.

Described as an attached row building, the Coburn Block was built in 1868-69 and consists of six buildings, each with 20-foot frontages. Of those six, the Chautauqua County Rural Ministry owns five, while the other is the home of Biker Bob’s. The Rural Ministry also owns the corner building the Garment Gallery is housed in, which was built in the 1870s.

On Feb. 15 of this year, the Dunkirk Fire Department responded to a fire at the Coburn Block, which consisted of a bag of trash and a mattress in an apartment. There were no injuries and damage was minimal.

City of Dunkirk Fire Chief Keith Ahlstrom said the Coburn Block would be a challenge in the event of a major fire.

“The building appears to be structurally sound, the major problems are that there is a significant fire load in the building due to the both the belongings of the residents, but also the inventory belonging to the businesses such as the Garment Gallery and Friendly Kitchen,” he explained about the Coburn Block. “The building is occupied by approximately 30-35 residents of varying ages, and there are multiple entrances to the building. This would provide an accountability issue in the case of a major fire. The building has an operating fire alarm system that hopefully will give everyone enough advance notice.

“The residents are very good about evacuating the building when the alarm sounds. We preplan for this building and our personnel are aware of the challenges we will face there.”

Housing and Zoning Officer Alan Zurawski was asked about the safety of the building and whether it meets building codes.

Zurawski explained there are several codes.

“Property maintenance code it may, I haven’t done an inspection there in a while. Does it meet the codes? I couldn’t say yes,” he stated. “Without doing an inspection I couldn’t say yes or no.”

Zurawski said the use of the building is the guide as to what codes need to be met.

“Normally, a use is defined in the code and it can be mixed uses and it can be accessory uses,” he added. “In general, if they do anything building-wise or building construction, then it would have to meet today’s codes. If they don’t do anything they probably wouldn’t have to. Property maintenance codes normally are generalized and they would have to meet those.”

City officials are working with the Rural Ministry on the state’s Main Street Grant program and Zurawski said his office would get involved at the appropriate time.

“If they change the facade we need to know about the design,” he explained, adding any inside work would need permits and have to meet today’s building codes.

Zurawski was asked if a building like the Coburn Block could be built today.

“It could be, there’s various different kinds of construction materials going on so there’s a lot of different options they have than they did probably 100 years ago when they built that building,” he replied. “If you were to build that new, you would have to comply with today’s building codes for exit aisles, fire resistance and accessibility.”

Zurawski said there were building codes back then, especially after the Chicago fires in 1871. The February 2010 fire which resulted in the demolition of the 1909-built Masonic Temple, could have been worse.

“In the Masonic Temple we see how the codes worked then, the building kind of fell inward. The whole thing was a disaster not because it occurred, but because of the fire cuts into the floor joists and into the ceiling joists they fell in and kept the fire within the building and not spreading to other buildings,” Zurawski explained. “There are fire walls and the party walls that they made also, and they made innate penetration so there were some codes there. “What they were exactly I don’t know.”

Rural Ministry Director Kathy Peterson was on vacation and could not be reached regarding the safety of the structure.

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