Surviving When Fires Follow an Earthquake

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
A high-density area of wooden houses in Tokyo

High-density areas of old wooden houses are a feature of many cities across the nation. If a massive earthquake strikes — such as one centered directly beneath Tokyo, which has been predicted — large-scale fires are expected to break out and spread, and buildings will likely collapse. As such areas often have numerous narrow alleys, it is thought that evacuation and rescue operations will be difficult following a major quake. To minimize loss of life, it is important for local residents to improve their disaster-response capabilities and be able to carry out such activities as extinguishing fires in their initial stages. The following fictitious scenario illustrates these real-life concerns.

1. Wood-walled labyrinth — Narrow streets cause concern

Taro, 65, lives with his wife Hanako, 60, in an urban area of Tokyo crowded with old wooden houses. The couple’s home is a 40-year-old wooden house that faces an alley. Although slightly distant from the local railway station, it is conveniently located near an old-fashioned shopping street and a hospital, and there are many familiar faces in the neighborhood, making it a safe and comfortable place to live.

The local population is graying and many people live alone. In recent years, vacant houses have become conspicuous, which causes some concern. Taro and Hanako routinely stroll around the neighborhood, but the alleys are narrow and winding and dotted with dead ends.

“It’s such an interesting town; it’s like a maze,” Hanako said with a laugh on one such outing. Taro replied, saying, “It’s a great place to enjoy walking around, but the streets are narrow and if an emergency strikes, fire trucks won’t be able to get in.”

The houses sit very close together. It would be worrisome if a fire were to break out.

One evening, the windows of their house began to shake in the strong wind. “It’s cold today,” Hanako said, placing a pot atop the induction cooker to prepare oden stew. Taro and Hanako were relaxing in the living room when a strong tremor struck with a power they had never before experienced. “Be careful!” Taro shouted. “Hide under the desk!”

When the shaking finally stopped, Hanako went to the kitchen and found that the oden pot was safe, but dishes had fallen from the cupboards and were scattered across the floor.

2. Oil heater blaze — Paralyzed by uncertainty

Taro and Hanako ventured outside to check on the town. An elderly woman who lived alone in the neighborhood came running toward them, shouting: “Help! There’s a fire!”

The woman explained that shaking from the earthquake had caused drying laundry hanging in her room to fall onto an oil heater, and a fire had broken out.

“The water’s been cut off — there’s no water! Help!” she cried in a trembling voice.

If fire took hold of the woman’s house, strong winds could fan the flames and could potentially damage Taro and Hanako’s house, too.

Taro urged Hanako to report the fire, and rushed to the woman’s house with a fire extinguisher that he kept in the entrance of his own home.

But when confronted with the blaze, his arms and legs trembled. He did not know how to use the extinguisher and the intensity of the fire caused him to become discombobulated.

Just then, a man with a fire extinguisher rushed into the house and started putting out the fire. The man also used Taro’s extinguisher to quell the blaze. Taro felt relieved, but also regretted not learning how to use a fire extinguisher and put out a fire.

He stepped outside and surveyed the city. Some houses were leaning over and some walls had collapsed, blocking the alleyways. He knew this area was known for having a high concentration of wooden houses and that there was a high risk of buildings collapsing and fires breaking out following an earthquake. However, he had not truly believed that such a disaster would actually occur.

“Let’s hurry to the evacuation site,” he said to his wife, and they started walking toward the designated area.

3. Handkerchief over mouth — Keeping below the smoke

It was dark, with no streetlights or house lights; the entire area seemed to be without power. Although they normally walked down this particular path on a daily basis, it was tenebrous and the alleyway’s atmosphere had completely changed due to the quake.

Taro and Hanako were left wondering how to get to the park — the designated evacuation site.

Then, a member of the town council invited the couple to join him in going to the evacuation center. On the way, the group encountered a smoke-filled area. “I heard you should squat down and waddle, rather than walk upright,” Hanako said. “Don’t breathe in the smoke, either!” Taro hastily covered his mouth with the handkerchief Hanako had given him.

The couple regained some of their composure after arriving at the spacious park. Town council officers were animatedly discussing how to respond to the situation, including carrying out evacuations and first aid. Taro was surprised to hear from a local resident that fires were breaking out all over the place.

Taro had brought his cell phone and wallet, but his bank cards, bankbook and personal seal were still at home. A large fire in an area densely crowded with wooden houses could potentially destroy their entire house. However, it would be dangerous to return home now, even to retrieve such important items.

Taro regretted not having put those important items into an emergency bag. He hoped their house would not catch fire. The couple spent a restless night, shivering in the cold.

Mitigating risk of quake-related fires

There are zones even in massively populated cities with dense clusters of wooden houses, often built along very narrow alleys that make access difficult for firefighters and emergency vehicles. If a fire occurs in such a zone, fire-extinguishing activities and evacuations could be obstructed.

In 2012, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry designated a total of 5,745 hectares as zones with densely clustered wooden houses, where there is high risk that an earthquake or other disaster could cause widespread fires, making evacuation difficult. The zones were located in 197 areas in Tokyo and 16 prefectures across the nation.

As of the end of March 2022, the total area at high risk had fallen to 1,989 hectares. But Osaka Prefecture still had the most such area at 982 hectares, followed by Kanagawa Prefecture, Kyoto Prefecture, Hyogo Prefecture and Tokyo.

Prof. Yu Hiroi of the University of Tokyo, an expert on urban disaster prevention studies, said: “In strong earthquakes or other disasters, fires could occur in many places simultaneously in zones with densely packed wooden houses. If strong winds blow, it is possible that damage from the spread of the fires would reach a very wide area.”

A hard lesson can be learned from a large-scale fire that occurred in the daytime in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture, in December 2016.

A restaurant’s failure to turn off a cooking stove was determined to be the cause of the fire. Strong, dry southerly winds fanned the flames, and the fire spread in a zone with densely clustered wooden buildings.

A total of 147 houses and other buildings across a total of 40,000 square meters burned, and 17 people were injured.

Also, in the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995, many fires occurred simultaneously and worsened the damage.

The Tokyo metropolitan government announced in May a new estimate of possible damage from an anticipated earthquake with an epicenter in the south of central Tokyo.

According to the estimate, if a magnitude 7.3 quake occurs on a winter evening with winds blowing at about 29 kph, about 200,000 buildings could catch fire or be destroyed, and about 6,150 people could die.

Partly due to that estimate, neighborhood associations in the Kyojima 2-chome and 3-chome districts of Sumida Ward, Tokyo, which are zones with densely clustered wooden houses, widened some of the community roads to serve as firebreaks. The associations took the measure together with the ward office and local community-building councils.

In March 2021, the associations set up an open area with a well for emergency use and other disaster prevention facilities on a local shopping street.

Facilities in the plaza include a water hookup where residents can connect hoses to a fire hydrant and discharge water up to 80 meters away.

So far, local residents have only had to utilize the facilities when conducting firefighting drills.

Hiroi said: “To minimize damage, it is necessary for local neighborhood associations and residents to collaborate with administrative entities, and build a system for quicker initial responses as soon as possible. Especially, preparations for initial-stage fire extinguishing to prevent a large-scale fire are the most important.”