Should the Dubai Fire Scare us Away From High Rises?

January 1, 2016, 12:12 AM UTC
A fire engulfs The Address Hotel in downtown Dubai in the United Arab Emirates
A fire engulfs The Address Hotel in downtown Dubai in the United Arab Emirates December 31, 2015. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah - RTX20NAX
Photograph by Ahmed Jadallah — Reuters

In a surreal New Year’s Eve tableau Thursday in Dubai, thousands watched an elaborate fireworks display erupt from the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building. Just a short distance away, another of the city’s huge towers, the nearly 1,000 foot tall Address Hotel, was engulfed in flame.

The juxtaposition of the massive Burj Khalifa and its smoldering neighbor highlights a risk that’s increasingly prevalent in the world’s cities. As urban populations expand, high rises and ultra-high rises are becoming commonplace—but those structures can become death traps in the blink of an eye. How much should that worry us?

That depends, in part, on where you are. The list of recent serious skyscraper fires is dominated by sites in the developing world. A Rem Koolhaas-designed hotel at the headquarters of China Central Television was set ablaze by New Year’s fireworks in Beijing in 2009, though luckily the building was unoccupied at the time. That wasn’t the case when a Shanghai apartment building burned down to its girders in 2010, killing at least 49 and injuring many more. Nine more were killed in a 2010 tower fire in Bangalore.

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Fighting fires in towers hundreds of feet tall presents obvious challenges. In the CCTV fire, equipment was unavailable that could fight the fire above the 20th floor. And while fire fighters often enter buildings to fight smaller fires from within, this has obvious risks. Just weeks ago, Dubai itself highlighted the seriousness of the challenge by announcing a plan to equip its fire-fighting forces with jetpacks. (None of these were in evidence at the Address fire).

But much of the work of keeping towers safe comes before a fire starts, in both safety systems and careful emergency planning. Here again, buildings in the developing world are least prepared. In the rush to provide even minimally adequate housing for waves of urban immigrants, safety can take a back seat. Following the Bangalore fire, for instance, authorities found that over 1,000 high-rises in Delhi failed to meet fire safety standards.

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Even a rich emirate like Dubai can’t prevent all fires—which is where emergency planning kicks in. In fact, today’s fire is Dubai’s second this year, following a blaze at the unfortunately named Torch tower in February. But, as seems to have been the case today, an orderly evacuation kept injuries to a handful and deaths to zero.

Tentative early reports suggested that the fire began when a curtain caught fire in a room on the building’s 20th floor. In a matter of minutes, observers saw flames shoot up more than 20 floors. At the time of writing, the fire is under control, and the injury tally stands at less than two dozen. An orderly evacuation has been credited for keeping that toll low, though the casualty count is likely to rise after the blaze is fully extinguished.

If images of a burning hotel make you anxious about your next vacation, maybe a historical perspective is best. Perhaps the greatest fire prevention measure of all time has been the very same steel and concrete construction that made high-rises possible in the first place. Prior to their arrival in the late 19th Century, massive fires consumed huge swathes of cities on a regular basis. By comparison, today’s events at the Address are a minor flare-up.