About 7,000 buildings of about 70 hectares were burnt out by fires that occurred simultaneously after the Great Hanshin Earthquake. Why did the fires occur? The causes of the big fires are listed below in the order of the degree of their contribution.
Causes of the Big Fires
First, widespread inner city residential districts had been left vulnerable and congested with wooden constructions. If the districts had been made nonflammable, a fire would not have developed too badly even if it started.
Second, the number of the fires overwhelmed the fire fighting ability. Nearly 80 fires occurred within an hour after the earthquake in Kobe city. Had it been only about 10, they would have been able to bring many of the fires well under control by concentrating fire pumps effectively on the sites.
Third, the amount of available water was not sufficient, partially because the water supply was stopped. Had enough water been available, the area burnt out could have been less than half.
Fourth, the official fire fighters were late in arriving on the sites. Collapsed houses disturbed traffic and life saving activities held them up. In any case, if they had arrived earlier, some of the big fires would have been extinguished, even with the poor amount of water supply from fireplugs.
Fifth, the fire fighting operation was not efficient. One reason lay in the difficulty in catching the situation. If the situation had been quickly grasped, priority accurately placed, and fire vehicles been concentrated to the sites effectively, some of the big fires, once again, could have been well contained.
Sixth, the initial fire fighting activities by citizens could not be organized smoothly under the tough situation immediately after a great tremor of seismic intensity seven. If fire fighting by residents, like the ones seen in Mano-district, Kobe, had been operated here and there right after the earthquake, many of the fires could have been extinguished.
Measures against Big Fires
The principle to prevent fire in an urban area is, regardless to say, to improve the urban structure by making it incombustible. In other words, it is to create an inflammable city by placing green zones and water zones effectively, like Western advanced nations have achieved. Reinforcement of fire fighting ability will not be sufficient if the improvement of the urban structure is left neglected.
It is, however, not quite possible for the urban structure to change so quickly. Here, then, comes the second best measure, which is to reinforce the risk management system concerning fire fighting. Necessary preparation and improvement include not only those on the hardware side such as facilities, water supply and the information system, but also those on the software side such as manpower and a system to watch out and prevent danger.
The preparation on the hardware side seems to have somewhat been improving. The number of quake resistant water tanks have been increased, the information system has been improved, and a fire extinguishing system utilizing sea water has been developed. The improvement on the software side is, however, showing slow progress, partially due to insufficient funds to secure personnel. Though it is essential to establish and improve programs to facilitate an organic cooperation among official and volunteer fire brigades, and to reduce the degree of potential damage by concentrating fighting power, it has just only started.
Reduction of Fires Occurring
Another important factor is to reduce the number of the fires to begin with. Along with the diffusion of safe fire appliances, improvement to the energy supply system is inevitable. The fact that many fires were provoked by restored electricity clearly indicates that citizens, administrative bodies and those in the business field should make a positive effort in close cooperation to create an environment not to let a fire start in the event of an earthquake. Unfortunately, not such a movement has been seen so far. While the preparation of fire fighting facilities and equipment as the second best measure has been showing progress, drastic and radical measures to improve urban structures and to prevent fires from occurring are left untouched, or rather to say, lagging far behind.