Roof collapses: how to protect people and property this spring
Snow is damaging houses left and right, and with highs in the 50s later this week, the danger is increasing.
Everything from state alcohol warehouses to single family homes has been buckling this winter.
Scott Greenwood is Battalion Chief Training Officer at the Park City Fire District. In his entire career, he’s only ever responded to four structural collapses from snow.
“Four in 20 years,” Greenwood said. “And all four were this week.”
As he was speaking, firefighters responded at 2:30 p.m. to yet another house collapse. The home was on Silver Spur Road in Jeremy Ranch and unoccupied, so there were no injuries. Greenwood said in a statement snow hadn’t been removed all winter.
So that’s five on the week, none resulting in injury. Warming temperatures are only heightening the danger posed by melting snow and ice dams.
Summit County’s Chief Building Inspector Richard Butz says ice dams form when, ironically, the roof gets too warm from either a lack of ventilation or poor insulation.
Melted water refreezes at the edge of the roof, trapping heavy snow.
Butz said roof safety is a little more involved than just getting that snow off. Sometimes moving snow can damage small things protruding from the roof.
“If it starts to slide or move, you're going to start losing plumbing vents or big vents for your furnace, your water heater, stuff like that, that we really have to watch,” Butz said. “And then: what's it hitting when it lands on the ground?”
Butz says he’s seen multiple power or gas lines damaged by falling snow this winter. If snow falls on another roof below, that impact is dangerous too.
So the key thing both he and the fire department emphasize is to hire professional contractors. Butz says people with a roofing background are better than any old Joe Schmoe because they have the knowledge and the equipment to secure themselves on the roof.
He’s seen plenty of professionals to go around this winter: a good thing, considering the volume of snow.
“These guys were tethered off to the roof and knew what they were doing,” Butz said. “And when they were shoveling, they were shoveling above their heads. There was that much snow on the roof.”
He heard anecdotally that one house up in The Colony, a gated community in the middle of Canyons Village Ski Resort, has spent $100,000 on snow removal this year.
It’s important because for anyone living in a building covered in snow there’s the possibility of getting hurt in a major collapse.
If someone owns, the additional problem is monetary: the cost of fixing the property. If someone rents, there’s the danger of losing a place to live if the owner deems the property unfit to live in.
An owner can end a tenant’s lease against their wishes if they feel the property becomes unlivable. That was what happened earlier in March to a family living in Todd Hollow Apartments, run by Evergreene Management Group.
Most renters don’t handle their own snow removal; that’s why it’s important to make sure landlords keep up. Legally serving the landlord notice of deficient conditions can stave off eviction, though Utah laws are among the most landlord-friendly in the country.
Although they are not official building inspectors, the Park City Fire District did share information for residents on how to look for early trouble signs that a building could be compromised. Those include sagging, bowing, cracks on walls or creaking sounds.
Summit County Community Development Director Pat Putt has met with the county building department about watching for potential collapses.
“A drive-by isn't the only indicator, sometimes we see roofs that seem to be structurally stable, and they just give,” Putt said. “We're not going to be able to do that obviously, we're not going to be going in people's houses. But if there are properties that just seem to be ripe for a potential problem, we're going to be letting folks know.”
Prevention is key because there’s a limitation on what first responders can do. Except in life-threatening emergencies homeowners should call contractors or other professionals to remove the snow causing the threat.
In the event of a collapse, Greenwood said firefighters can only deal with the immediate problem.
“As soon as the life safety threat is gone by removing all the people from [the building], that's it. That's all we can do,” Greenwood said. “And we can advise them that they probably should not go in; however, it would be the [county] building department that would truly say yea or nay.”
The consensus is to do everything possible to prevent a collapse before it happens.