Terminal stupidity and innocuous fires

Jane Embury

Jane Embury

Fires usually begin and take hold as a direct result of the most innocuous – or stupid – of reasons. For example, last year a woman in Bridgend, South Wales accidentally set her house on fire after trying to kill a spider by spraying it with a lit aerosol can. Jane Embury reviews recent incidents such as this before stressing the overriding importance of successful containment strategies and solutions.

Again last year, a rioter in Ferguson, Missouri accidentally burned down his house after mistaking it for a convenience store. According to reports at the time, the 32 year-old threw a Molotov cocktail at a window not realising he was setting fire to his own property.

Back in the UK, there’s the case of the council tenant in Nottingham who, earlier this year, accidentally caused £9,000 worth of damage to his own home when he set fire to rubbish that was sitting a little too close to an outside wall. The fire quickly spread to the property’s roof, in turn causing a significant degree of damage.

Worse still happened back in 2012 when a 31 year-old male employee sneaked into a store room at a factory in Crumlin, South Wales to have a crafty cigarette. He started a blaze that caused £25 million of damage and cost 100 people their jobs (including those of his parents who also worked at the factory in question).

This particular fire took a mere ten minutes to completely engulf the factory. That sneaky cigarette not only saw the main lose his job but also resulted in a prison sentence of six years.

Stupidity and the outbreak of fire

Forbes Magazine has some light-hearted examples of stupidity and fire. For instance, there’s the story of the American tycoon who decided to cook a single chicken breast in a deep fat fryer. No problem, except for the fact that the fryer was located in his basement and he then left the house to walk his dog. The subsequent blaze cost the man a cool $1 million.

Or there’s the case of the rich chap who thought it was a good idea to hang an Andy Warhol painting over his fireplace. The painting duly melted, leaving him with a multi-million dollar claim.

Episodes of arson aside, it’s generally the case that most fires start from only the smallest of accidental causes. Often, they’re due to a faulty wire or a casually-dropped cigarette.

The worst civilian tragedy in Paraguay for the last 60 years started with a spark from a grill in a fast food outlet. Tragically, that comparatively minor incident within the Ycuá Bolaños premises on the outskirts of Asunción would go on to orphan over 200 children.

Materials such as metal can absorb heat and then transmit that heat to other rooms or locations by conduction where it can then cause new fires to break out. Radiation transfers heat in the air until it too sets off secondary fires, spreading the danger away from its original location.

This scenario occurred only recently in a shopping centre in Qatar, where an electrical fire started near a child care centre, going on to trap the children and their teachers. In total, 13 children died – most from smoke inhalation – as did four teachers and two firefighters.

The list goes on and on, although thankfully most accidental – or stupid – fires are dealt with relatively quickly and don’t lead to any loss of life.

Blaze on the London Underground network

One that did lead to loss of life, and changed both design and safety regulations on the London Underground, was a fire on an old wooden escalator in 1987. That blaze – caused by a lit match being dropped on to the escalator at Kings Cross Station – claimed the lives of 31 people. Among them was a brave firefighter and a homeless man who wasn’t identified until 2004. Dozens more were injured.

May this year marked the 30th Anniversary of one of the UK’s worst fire disasters when 56 people died at Bradford City’s Valley Parade stadium. Over 250 other supporters from both Bradford City and their opponents Lincoln City were injured, many of them seriously.

Worse still, supporters in attendance were forced to break down locked exits to escape.

A discarded cigarette was the most likely cause of the blaze. On a positive note, this disaster subsequently gave rise to much greater safety in football stadiums right across the UK.

The greatest risk does, of course, arise in those places where significant numbers of people congregate, such as larger offices, shopping centres or transport hubs.

Modern fire regulations are all about active fire systems such as sprinklers or passive systems like fire protective glazing. A key factor here is compartmentation. In other words, trapping the fire in a contained space – and, therefore, preventing it from spreading – for up to 120 minutes.

It’s not just fire that we need to worry about, either. As was the case with the aforementioned incident in Qatar, the majority of deaths can be caused through the inhalation of smoke or toxic gases.

Compatibility between the glass and its frame

Containment also allows firefighters to easily reach the seat of the fire, limits damage to a specific area and, arguably most important of all, gives everyone in that building the time to escape the scene on a safe basis.

But – and it’s a big but – we always emphasise that, in a fire situation, the performance of any glazing system relies on compatibility between the glass and its framing system. If one fails, both fail.

On that basis, end users must insist on proven and thoroughly tested compatibility.

In a fire scenario, the sudden venting of oxygen caused by a glazing system failure can have a significant and catastrophic effect on rapid fire growth. At worst, this will lead to backdraft or flashover, two of the most feared scenarios faced by today’s firefighters.

The simple truth is that fire is both a friend and a foe. For their part, modern glazing systems are designed to contain fire but they will not be any use if you hang your Warhol over the fireplace.

Jane Embury is Marketing Director at Wrightstyle

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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