Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2019.

Again, Russian mall fires spark outcry, suspicion

Two September blazes follow a high-fatality mall fire in 2018


In September, large fires tore through two separate shopping malls in Russia within two days, Russian news sources reported. As is common for incidents in Russia, it is unclear from the reports how the fires started or if deaths or injuries occurred. What is clear is the fires are the latest in what seems to be a major problem plaguing the country.

The first blaze erupted September 20 at shopping mall in Grozny, the capital city of the Russian republic of Chechnya. A day later, fire ignited again at a shopping mall in Vladivostok, a port city about 80 miles north of the North Korean border. The events come on the heels of the fire in March 2018 at a shopping mall in the Siberian city of Kemerovo, which killed 64 people, 41 of them children.

Faced with the notoriously scant reporting in Russia’s largely government-controlled media outlets, observers across the world have voiced suspicion, concern, and outrage over the incidents.

“There is something suspicious about these fires,” one person speculated on the state-funded Russian news website, reacting to news of the fire in Vladivostok. Other commenters on alleged that one or more of the fires was intentionally set, and that there have been other recent fires in Russian malls that have gone unreported in state media.

Not surprisingly, online commenters also called for increased fire safety measures in Russia. “Hey Russia,” one person wrote, “time to install sprinkler systems in your malls, public buildings, and multi-family residential compounds.” Another said, “Need to install sprinkler and fire alarm [systems] in these places.”

In the catastrophic 2018 Kemerovo fire, the mall lacked working fire alarms and fire sprinklers, and exit doors had been blocked. That fire sparked similar suspicion with many feeling that the Russian government bore responsibility for the blaze.

“This tragedy reflects all of Russia’s problems—the corruption of officials who closed their eyes to problems with fire safety, uncoordinated work of the special services, the imperviousness of authorities,” Rasim Yaraliyev, head of a citizen’s group that pressed for answers in the wake of the fire, told the Associated Press.

According to the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services, Russia in general has one of the highest fire death rates of any country in the world—6.4 deaths per 100 fires, compared to 0.2 deaths per 100 fires in the United States and Great Britain.


Chemical fire prompts safety concerns in France

In September, a large fire broke out at a chemical factory in the French city of Rouen, about 75 miles northwest of Paris. The blaze raged for over 20 hours, sending thick black smoke pouring over the city.

Getty Images

While nobody was hurt directly in the incident, it prompted widespread panic over health and environmental safety in the community. “The city is clearly polluted. I cannot guarantee that there is no danger. There are of course traces of hydrocarbons,” Agnes Buzyn, France’s health minister said, despite state authorities telling the public that the air and water in the city was safe, according to the Guardian. Similar concerns have surfaced in Paris related to the fire that destroyed parts of the iconic Notre Dame church in April.

NFPA 1600, Standard on Continuity, Emergency, and Crisis Management, is often associated with incidents like natural disasters and terrorist attacks, but it can also be applied for large fires or explosions, especially when they impact whole communities, such as the Rouen fire. The standard specifically requires emergency plans to be in place to monitor the “health and safety of persons in the affected area,” as well as the “health and safety of personnel responding to the incident,” and the impact on the environment.

Boarding school fire claims over two dozen lives

At least 28 people, including 26 between the ages of 10 and 20, died in a September fire that consumed an Islamic boarding school in the Liberian capital of Monrovia. Students were asleep when the fire started, reportedly caused by an electrical problem. The blaze left little more than a blackened shell of the building.

A pastor from a nearby church described the scene to the Associated Press. “The entire place was red,” he said. “When I looked through the window, I saw the whole place blazing with fire.”

Building collapses and fires in Monrovia are common but “rarely deadly,” according to Reuters. In the US, fires in schools occur with some regularity—from 2013 to 2017, an average of 3,320 fires in US schools occurred each year, according to NFPA data—but those, too, are rarely deadly. On average, one civilian death a year occurs in US school fires.

ANGELO VERZONI is a staff writer for NFPA Journal Top photograph: Getty Images