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Eric Hartley

Tests on fake palm trees that fueled Cosmopolitan fire raise concerns

5 December 2015

Controlled burns of the kind of fake palm trees that helped fuel a dramatic rooftop fire at The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas "raise some concerns" about the flammability of such outdoor decorations, Clark County's top building official said Friday.

But Ron Lynn, director of the county's Department of Building and Fire Prevention, said he was not recommending any new laws to address the problem.

Instead, Lynn said he shared the test results with the resort industry and advised companies to consider voluntarily removing such foliage or doing their own testing.

The Cosmopolitan said it's removing all its outdoor artificial foliage, with more than half already gone and the rest scheduled to be gone by early 2016. Company officials declined to answer further questions.

County Commissioner Susan Brager said the findings should lead the county to take a renewed look at the safety of outdoor decorations. She said she was open to changing county code to require more fire-resistant foliage.

Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak said he expects most resorts will voluntarily remove the kind of highly flammable decorations that were at The Cosmopolitan. But he said he is open to considering a new ordinance to make sure landscaping at future resorts is safe.

Lynn said his staff's review has not found any similar fake palm trees at other resorts.

Friday's announcement came more than four months after the July 25 fire, which caused $2 million in damage at the hotel-casino on the Strip.

The flames spread quickly, producing clouds of black smoke that could be seen for miles. One person was hospitalized for smoke inhalation, and parts of the hotel-casino were evacuated. The fire was out less than half an hour after firefighters arrived.

It was clear even to bystanders that palm trees and other decorations helped the flames spread.

"This stuff went up fast," Lynn said.

Lab tests quantified exactly how fast. When the same kind of plastic palm fronds were burned at a Texas lab, there was a massive and immediate spike in heat and smoke production, with the fronds largely reduced to ash within about three minutes, Lynn said.

The fronds put off heat about 10 times as fast as southern pine or gypsum, Lynn said. The polyurethane foam and fiberglass resin in the artificial tree trunks put off heat nearly five times as fast as southern pine.

Asked why he wasn't recommending any changes in county code, Lynn said restrictions on outdoor decorations, which can easily be moved around from one day to the next, would be tough to enforce.

"If I could wave a wand and say none of this stuff could exist, I would," he said. "But I also have to have a practical approach."

Local building and fire codes, like the national models on which they're based, don't regulate outdoor foliage such as palm trees. But tests showed the materials in the palm trees at The Cosmopolitan didn't meet flame and smoke resistance standards, meaning they would not have been allowed indoors.

Lynn said he spoke to colleagues in Los Angeles, San Diego and San Francisco, and the California state fire marshal, all of whom told him they don't restrict outdoor foliage.

Lynnette Round, a spokeswoman for the California fire marshal, confirmed there are no such restrictions in that state.

Lynn said his department's focus is building standards and sprinkler requirements that help keep fires from getting into a building, or from spreading if they start inside.

"Everything inside that building we regulate very tightly," he said.

The Cosmopolitan fire started about noon on the 14th-floor rooftop deck, which holds the resort's Bamboo Pool. It spread in part thanks to easily burned items such as cabanas and artificial landscaping, including the palm trees. There was smoke damage to one suite inside the hotel and water damage to others.

The county took samples of the fake palm trees and sent them for laboratory tests by the San Antonio-based Southwest Research Institute.

In August, a month after the blaze, the county Fire Department said investigators could not determine the cause, but they did rule it was not an electrical fire.

There were "improperly discarded cigarettes" on the pool deck, Fire Chief Greg Cassell said, but investigators could not determine whether one of them sparked the fire.

The investigation found the fire started on the west side of the pool in landscaping that sat between the pool and cabanas.