Fire following earthquake

Another underrated and neglected seismic hazard, at least in the minds of architects designing buildings, are the fires that so often follow

▲ 15.5 A localized example of fire damage following the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake.

(Reproduced with permission from Adam Crewe).

a damaging earthquake. Charles Scawthorn and others warn: 'That large fires following earthquakes remain a problem is demonstrated by ignitions following recent earthquakes such as the 1994 Northridge and 1995 Kobe earthquakes (Fig. 15.5).16 They recall that during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake fire, 28,000 buildings were lost over a period of three days and approximately 3000 people were killed. Yet that tragedy was far surpassed after the I923 Tokyo earthquake where 77 per cent of the 575,000 buildings lost were destroyed by fire, and over I40,000 lives lost.

▲ 15.5 A localized example of fire damage following the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake.

(Reproduced with permission from Adam Crewe).

▲ 15.6 Two of an irregular line of eighteen apartment blocks forming a firewall protect a refuge area. During a fire, metal shutters cooled by falling water protect the glazing. Shirahige, Tokyo.

(Reproduced with permission from Geoff Thomas).

Post-earthquake fires are not inevitable. The widespread use of non-combustible building materials was probably the main reason that fires have been absent from several quake stricken areas including Bhuj, India, in 2001 and Marmara, Turkey in 1999, although one petroleum refinery there was destroyed by fire. The time of day and prevailing weather conditions also explain the absence of post-earthquake fires. If an earthquake strikes during windy weather fire spread is far more likely and rapid, as shown by past experience and computer fire modelling.17

How should planners respond to the threat of fire following earthquake? First, they should adopt best practice standards for reducing risk of fire spread from non-earthquake fires. Then, realizing how quickly post-earthquake fires can become conflagrations, they should recommend even higher standards. Wide streets are effective as firebreaks and less likely to be blocked by fallen rubble; urban parks provide places of refuge, and any reduction in the combustibility of building claddings and roofs will reduce fire risk. Existing buildings could even be required to comply with current fire-spread regulations. If the fire hazard of a community is assessed as very serious, measures as extreme as constructing purpose-designed buildings to function as fire barriers might be considered (Fig. 15.6).

▲ 15.6 Two of an irregular line of eighteen apartment blocks forming a firewall protect a refuge area. During a fire, metal shutters cooled by falling water protect the glazing. Shirahige, Tokyo.

(Reproduced with permission from Geoff Thomas).

Architects should advise their clients of the risk posed by post-earthquake fire. In cases of very high risk a client might request additional fire protection, such as enhanced fire-resistant cladding and shutters to cover exposed windows. Clients should also be advised to provide on-site water storage for fire sprinklers and provide hand-held fire appliances. During the 1995 Kobe, Japan earthquake 40 per cent of the post-earthquake fires were extinguished by the public.18 The risk of gas ignitions can be reduced by providing flexible connections between buried pipes and buildings to accommodate relative movement without rupture. Otherwise, one can do little else other than meeting the various mandatory requirements for passive and active fire control systems, and voluntarily supporting efforts to achieve and maintain an effective fire-fighting force.

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