Large-scale fires in Norway underscore need for comprehensive emergency planning

Local emergency planning needs to be rethought from bottom to top. Such […]

Fire Security
Sep 2014

IMG_6449Local emergency planning needs to be rethought from bottom to top. Such was the simple conclusion of a new report by the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning, which investigated the local response to a January fire in the village of Lærdalsøyri.

When 40 houses burned to the ground on the night of 19 January in Lærdal Municipality, it was the worst fire Norway had experienced since 1945. However, it was also the result of a series of unusual and unavoidable circumstances, as the Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning concluded in a recent report entitled ‘The Fire in Lærdal, Flatanger and Frøya, Winter 2014’.

The fire started in a building in the tiny village of Lærdalsøyri, and its actual cause has yet to be determined. But just after 11 p.m., a local inhabitant rang to the emergency dispatch centre to report what was most likely a flash fire in the building next door, and that there was a considerable risk that the flames would spread.

– The region is normally dry in January with only a little precipitation, and this year there was  under seven millimetres of rain or snow, says Anne Rygh Pedersen, a branch manager at the Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning.

Over €24 million in damages
Meanwhile, the weather was warmer than usual, and the wind made fire conditions even worse.

– The wind was blowing quite hard. And when it hit the valleys, it was deflected off the rock face and created turbulence and unstable wind conditions in the village, Pedersen explains.

Even though the first fire engine reached the scene just six minutes after the emergency call, by 11:15 p.m. the flames had spread to several neighbouring houses. The houses were made of wood, the direction of the wind was shifting constantly, and the fire continued to spread to the rest of the village and up into the valley. The wind eventually died down the following morning, and with help from local inhabitants, fire departments from neighbouring towns and the Norwegian Civil Defence, the fire was brought under control. By this time, however, 40 buildings had burned down (of which four were part of the village’s historic town centre, though none of these were protected homes), 70 people had lost their homes and property, and the damages totalled more than €24 million.

A lack of training
The incident in Lærdalsøyri was one of three large-scale fires to hit Norway within a span of 11 days due to unusual weather conditions that included drought and heavy winds. And the three fires have raised questions about the region’s emergency preparedness and organisation, as the overall response was less than optimal. Take the Lærdalsøyri, for example:

– The response efforts were too poorly organised. There are around 2,100 people who live in the Lærdal Municipality, and the emergency response team is quite small, with 16 part-time fire fighters and no on-call emergency service, Pedersen explains.

An emergency response team of this size is not equipped to lead or organise a large-scale effort that includes fire brigades from several municipalities, helicopters and the Norwegian Civil Defence.  And the Lærdal Municipality suffered the consequences.

– A small emergency response team does not have the necessary training to lead such a large-scale effort. They don’t have the overview of the available resources, such as those that can be obtained from neighbouring municipalities. In Lærdal, this meant that a tanker loaded with foam, which could have been used to prevent the fire from spreading, first arrived from an airstrip in a neighbouring municipality five hours after the initial deployment. Had it arrived earlier, several of the buildings most likely could have been saved, Pedersen assesses.

A lack of emergency planning
It is not only in the event of an emergency that the small response teams have difficulties meeting the challenge at hand. The preventive work is often insufficient because smaller municipalities might not have the means to hire a fire safety engineer.

– There was no plan that could have been followed to coordinate the efforts of the many fire brigades that showed up in Lærdal. They organised themselves without a strategy, and without any real cohesion among the different fire-fighting efforts, says Pedersen.

Overall coordination was further complicated by the fact that communication between the various actors was widely based on mobile phones, and the network buckled in connection with the fire, as did the power grid.

Furthermore, there was no emergency response plan in place for saving the protected buildings in Lærdalsøyri. As a result, a plan was simply drawn up on the fly while the fire was underway, which cost a great deal of dear time.

Consolidated efforts are necessary
The challenges presented by sparsely populated regions with small emergency response teams are much greater in Norway than in Denmark, which is not a new phenomenon.

– In autumn of 2013, a working group headed by the Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning conducted a fire safety study for the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Public Security. In it, there was a recommendation for combining Norway’s emergency response teams from 18 regions because, from our point of view, the working group knew the existing emergency efforts were poorly organised. It’s something we’ve known for many years, and it was very clearly underscored by the three fires we saw in January, Pedersen emphasises.

– There is a need for more experienced leaders and improved preventive measures. A large and consolidated emergency response team is necessary, says Pedersen.

It’s too early to say what consequences of this might be, as the municipalities themselves decide whether they want to consolidate their emergency response teams with those of neighbouring municipalities.

The fire in Lærdalsøyri by the numbers

16 part-time fire fighters served in the municipal fire brigade
€24+ million in damages
40 houses burned down
70 people lost their homes and property
115 fire fighters were involved in the emergency response
178 members of the Norwegian Civil Defence participated in the response
270 people were hospitalised for shorter or longer periods of time
446 people were examined at the hospital
680 people were evacuated from their homes
4,000 hours were spent fighting the fire

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