Climate Change

Is the recent spate of building fires in India due to extreme heat? Yes, says expert

Overloading of air conditioners & transistors due to unprecendented power demand made matters worse in residential & public buildings that violate fire safety norms 

By Preetha Banerjee
Published: Thursday 30 May 2024
Photo for representation: iStock

Northwest and central India, along with recording unusually high temperatures over the last couple of weeks, has also been reporting deadly fire accidents in buildings. The consecutive massive blazes in a gaming arena in Gujarat’s Rajkot and a hospital for newborns in Delhi last week claimed many lives and created an outrage among citizens since in both cases, the establishments were found to be flouting building and safety norms. 

The fire service helpline in these areas have been busier than usual, indicating a rise in such accidents: The department in Delhi, where the mercury breached 50 degrees Celsius on May 29, 2024, is getting more than 220 calls a day at present, according to news publication Business Standard. These many calls to the fire department in the capital have only been recorded on Diwali day so far, according to officials. 

In 2022, 7,435 Indians perished in the 7,566 fire accidents recorded in the country, according to the Accidental Deaths & Suicides in India, 2022 — the latest of such reports released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on December 1, 2023. More than half of these fatalities were in residential / dwelling buildings. 

Around 10 fire incidents were recorded in the commercial buildings of Delhi, killing 5, the NCRB data showed. As many as 37 people died and 14 were injured in the 37 cases of fires in residential buildings that occured in the capital in 2022. The same year, two factory fires were reported in Delhi that killed 28 people, the analysis stated.

Overall, 77 people were killed in 69 fire accidents in Delhi in 2022, according to NCRB. The number of fatalities was 328 for Gujarat. Odisha, the state with the highest number of fire accidents and related fatalities in 2022, reported a staggering 1,219 deaths in such incidents, followed by Madhya Pradesh (839) and Maharashtra (778), the NCRB report mentioned. 

At least four of all the fires in 2022 broke out at hospitals in Delhi, Mumbai, Jabalpur and Hyderabad, claiming nine lives. Eight of these people perished in the fire at New Life Multispecialty hospital in Jabalpur. The main reasons for the accident and fatalities were that only one emergency evacuation route was created and the 3.6 metre side space needed for the movement of fire engines was not provided, according to a report published last June in the Journal of Failure Analysis and Prevention.

In 2023, a major fire at RC Hazra Memorial Hospital in Dhanbad, Jharkhand due to a short circuit killed five people, the report notedThe same year, another hospital fire at Honey Children’s hospital in Ahmedabad, Gujarat claimed one life, the authors of the report wrote.

While fire incidents in the cities of the region are not rare because of faulty planning amid unchecked urbanisation, the record-breaking heat over the last few days is the main cause for the fires taking place in the buildings, according to R Srinivas, former town and country planner, Town and Country Planning Organisation, Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. 

The intense heat has an adverse effect on the air conditioning (AC) systems, he said. “In the past 2-3 days, there have been many incidents of fire in compressors. This is because of overheating and overloading.”

The power demand in the National Capital Territory of Delhi breached 8,300 megawatts, the highest in the region’s history. Invariably, a lot of overloading takes place when the power demand is this high, due to which some of the transformers get burnt, the expert underlined.

In the central business districts and city core areas, typically the congestion results in higher temperatures, Srinivas said. “This is because virtually every house or shop uses ACs. Not only does this have an impact on the powerload, but the compressors of these machines also sometimes burn because of the atmospheric heat, resulting in building fires,” he  explained. 

As the cities heat up, AC units are particularly at danger of exploding. “This is because of overloading because every house uses ACs,” the planner shared. Because of this, he added, transformers in the 33 kilowatt power stations also become prone to fires. 

On the morning of May 30, 2024, a flat in a Noida highrise caught fire after one of the AC units in the apartment exploded. Srinivas explained what may have happened: AC units exposed to sunlight heat up both internally and externally. Internally because the efficiency of the machine reduces due to higher temperatures, causing the parts inside to go on an overdrive and heating up, and externally because the casing material receives direct heat for prolonged periods of the day. A combination of these may lead to the components of the AC machines to catch fire.

In the split AC, the cooling unit is normally kept outside. This makes them all the more vulnerable to blasts. Creating a shade for these units is, thus, absolutely necessary, Srinivas stressed.

The power supply infrastructure of cities undergoing intense heatwatves is also at risk of bursting into flames when the mercury soars to record highs, the expert observed, adding: 

In Tilak Nagar, a colony in West Delhi, there was a spark in the overhead transmission wire all of a sudden a couple of days ago. This was because of overloading. If precautions were not taken, the entire market would have been reduced to ashes.

In the case of the Rajkot incident, the main problem was mismanagement, according to Srinivas, who was with the Town and Country Planning Organization, India’s apex advisory body on urban planning and development, for 12 years till 2022. “There were no emergency exits, resulting in casualties.”

The expert added a glimmer of hope to this plethora of grim statistics and incidents. We are all sitting atop a volcano and these kinds of incidents can happen at any moment in a city like Delhi which has a burgeoning migrant population and has seen rampant urbanisation to make space for more people, he said. But there are ways to tackle this urban crisis, he noted.

“Unprecendented migration has led to a tremendous increase in the built-up space. Now, there is no harm in developing more and more buildings and going vertical to absorb the pressure of migration. But it is important to ensure that the blue-green areas are preserved and increased. 

In the 1970s and 80s, Delhi had more than 200 waterbodies. Today, there are around only 20. “Back in the day, the temperatures never went up to 45 degrees Celsius. So, clearly, the rapid concretisation has had an impact on the local climate and, therefore, we see an increase in temperatures.” 

Moreover, the heat island effect caused by glass facades of buildings and some other design and habit flaws have resulted in the increase of surface temperatures, he highlighted. “This is a huge problem.” 

The only solution, according to him, is that cities should restore and build more blue and green infrastructure – waterbodies and areas with tree cover. “Second, there has to be a national obsession with the tree plantations, which is mindful. It should start with the residents' welfare association.”

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