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

Weak Link

Fire safety expert calls attention to problematic regulations following a deadly blaze in an animation studio in Japan


On July 18, 34 people died in a fire that tore through an animation studio in an office building in Kyoto, Japan.

The blaze, at Kyoto Animation, was set by an arsonist who reportedly yelled “Die!” as he doused the facility with 40 liters of gasoline and set fire to it. It was the deadliest fire in Japan since 2001.

According to media reports, the building met fire safety regulations, which left many wondering how such an event could have happened. But in emails exchanged with NFPA Journal, a fire safety expert from Japan indicated there are weaknesses in the country’s current regulations, and pointed to at least one failure in a fire safety system that had been in place at the Kyoto facility.

Current Japanese regulations only require fire extinguishers and a fire alarm system to be installed in buildings classified as office spaces, said Yuji Kumamaru, who founded a private emergency response and disaster prevention consultation group in Tokyo, which relies heavily on directing customers to NFPA codes and standards. Other fire safety features such as fire sprinklers and horizontal exits, which allow occupants to move to safe areas while staying on the same floor by crossing a fire-resistant barrier, are not required in office buildings. “I think that’s really irresponsible,” Kumamaru said.

Once flames overtook the gasoline-soaked first floor of Kyoto Animation—which took less than a minute, according to Kumamaru—a spiral staircase that ran up all three floors of the building seemed to contribute most to floor-to-floor fire spread, and ultimately the high death toll. Kumamaru said the staircase had fire dampers installed to prevent fire spread, but those dampers failed during the July blaze. Media reports have identified the spiral staircase as a contributor to the outcome of the fire as well. The staircase “acted as a chimney, carrying the smoke upwards through all three stories,” Reuters reported, adding that survivors described seeing “a dark mushroom cloud” of smoke rushing up the stairs.

Kumamaru said he hopes Japanese officials can learn from the incident. “I hope Japanese officials study this incident very carefully and change regulations to more closely reflect NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®,” he said.


EU wildfires becoming more frequent

From January 1 through August 15 of this year, more than 1,600 wildfires were reported in the European Union, more than three times the average number of wildfires reported in the same time span annually over the last 10 years.

According to the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), the annual average number of wildfires from 2008 to 2018 over the same time span was 464.

The 2019 fires have also burned more land. “The rise in the number of blazes has reduced to ashes more than 271,000 hectares [670,000 acres]—100,000 hectares [247,000 acres] more than the average burnt over the same period during the last decade,” according to Euronews, the European news website that reported these statistics.

Euronews pointed to France as one country that has been particularly impacted this year, with temperatures over the summer there soaring to record-breaking highs of over 114 degrees F. Other countries, such as Greece, Portugal, and Spain, have also experienced frequent, large wildland blazes this year.

The fires have put immense strain on the countries’ emergency response systems, forced the evacuation of thousands, and injured dozens. According to media reports, a July wildfire in Portugal that injured 32 people involved nearly 2,000 firefighters, along with 321 vehicles and eight water-dumping aircraft. Wildland blazes in Spain in August forced the evacuation of almost 10,000 people and involved 600 firefighters. In Greece in August, 200 firefighters, 75 fire engines, nine helicopters, and seven planes were needed to stamp out fires that raced through dense pine forests.

Sea of swine: Blaze recalls NFPA Journal feature on protecting livestock and other animals

Nearly half of the 6,000 pigs at a pig fattening plant in northern Germany were killed in July when a fire razed the facility. Eighty firefighters reportedly responded to the blaze from nine fire brigades in surrounding towns. In the photo below, a sea of surviving pigs created a unique challenge for responding firefighters who had to ventilate the structure and spray water on it while surrounded by the animals.

Getty Images

The cover story for the November/December 2018 issue of NFPA Journal, “Critter Life Safety Code,” highlighted the fire and life safety challenges related to animal housing facilities like the one that burned in Germany, and looked at the revamped 2019 edition of NFPA 150, Fire and Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities Code.

Such fires, the article reported, are common around the globe; one organization estimates that 2.7 million farm animals died in fires from 2013 to 2017, though that figure is likely much higher.

Protecting animal housing facilities and their occupants can be challenging, Joe Scibetta, an NFPA 150 technical committee member, explained to NFPA Journal in the story. “If there was ever a special structure, it’s an animal housing facility,” he said. “We have a secondary population wholly reliant on a primary population for its well-being, and many technical and humane questions come into play that have to be weighed together.”

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