The tragic impact of fires in humanitarian camps: A call for action

On March 22, 2021, a devastating fire broke out at Kutupalong Balukhali, the largest refugee camp in the world located in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. The fire spread rapidly due to the dry conditions and abundant fuel source, made up of bamboo and plastic tarps used to construct the densely packed shelters for the nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees who had fled ethnic persecution in Myanmar. The blaze destroyed over 4 million square feet of the camp, including warehouses, medical facilities, mosques, and makeshift homes, displacing 45,000 people and resulting in 15 fatalities.

As with many fires in humanitarian settlements, this tragedy went largely unnoticed and unreported. Danielle Antonellis, a fire protection engineer and founder of Kindling, a nonprofit organization focused on fire safety in vulnerable communities, emphasizes the lack of attention and understanding surrounding these types of fires. She believes that the failure to properly track and address these incidents perpetuates a cycle of crisis for those who have already suffered immense trauma and loss. According to the UNHCR, there are currently 103 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, with 32.5 million being refugees. The impact of these crises is immeasurable, leaving those affected with deep scars and an uncertain future.

In response to the devastating fire in Bangladesh, James Milke ’76, M.S. ’81, Ph.D. ’91, the chair of the University of Maryland’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering, joined forces with Kindling and fire researchers from Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa to gain a better understanding of the causes and magnitude of fires in informal settlements worldwide. As a leading authority on fire behavior, material flammability, fire detection, and wildfires, Milke recognizes the urgency of the fire threat to both informal and formal refugee camps.

Milke enlisted the help of Maryland high school students, undergraduate, and graduate students to gather and organize data, and collaborate with faculty at Stellenbosch, Kindling experts, and frontline responders. These students conducted initial investigations of fire phenomena in informal settlements in South Africa and used Pathfinder software and Google Earth imagery to generate preliminary models and simulations of evacuations. However, a significant challenge in addressing fires in informal settlements is the lack of oversight from local governments, making it difficult to collaborate on possible interventions or solutions.

Therefore, Milke and his team shifted their focus to refugee camps, with plans to conduct further research this summer. With refugee camps located on every continent, Milke emphasizes the need for urgent global action to address the devastating impact of fires on those living in these vulnerable communities.

James Milke ’76, M.S. ’81, Ph.D. ’91, the Chair of UMD’s Department of Fire Protection Engineering, redirected his research focus towards refugee camps following the realization that these camps were more susceptible to interventions than informal settlements. The United Nations and other organizations hold a degree of influence over these communities, unlike informal settlements. The team began by examining refugee camps worldwide, scouring humanitarian reports and the internet for information on camp size, location, demographics, topography, cooking and heating methods, fire incidents, and construction materials. The team discovered that each camp is unique, and factors such as location, climate, and the socioeconomic and political climate of the host countries play a crucial role in determining camp design. The lack of permanent construction materials in Kutupalong Balukhali and the reliance on highly flammable materials made the refugee camps more vulnerable to fires. Families typically cook with gas cylinders, and satellite imagery reveals clusters of closely spaced dwellings without a grid system. Dan Graham, a safety and rescue technical specialist, describes the environment as ad hoc, dense, and highly flammable, apart from the metal cooking pots and water pumps.

In 2022, researchers from the University of Maryland, Stellenbosch, and MOAS collaborated to investigate the March 2021 fire at the Kutupalong Balukhali refugee camp. Lack of evidence and resources often hinder investigations of fires in refugee camps, making it difficult to understand the problem. The researchers relied on first-hand accounts from refugees and responders, media coverage, and information from international organizations to piece together the events of the fire. The resulting study was the first detailed documentation of a large-scale refugee camp incident in academic literature.

Understanding the fire risk in humanitarian settlements is a complex issue that involves multiple factors such as economics, social dimensions, and politics. The humanitarian system must make quick decisions about the construction and management of camps as refugees pour into them. Fire behavior in refugee camps is different from building fires, and human behavior is a factor in the spread of fires.

Genevieve Tan, a former UMD graduate student, developed a thesis project to quantify the fire risk and burn behavior of humanitarian shelters using a YouTube video of a shelter fire. Her model could be configured to different dimensions, material properties, and contents as more data becomes available. The simulations based on her model could help understand the risk of spread and inform the spacing of dwellings.

Research on fire risk in humanitarian settlements is ongoing, and fires in refugee camps continue to occur. Engineers have only recently begun to work on the logistics of global humanitarian challenges such as the refugee crisis, but research can help bridge the gap between firsthand knowledge and practical solutions.

According to Niemeier, engineers excel at solving logistical issues, making their role significant in addressing fire risks in refugee camps. By focusing on specific concerns such as fire hazards, they can help promote safer practices and increased vigilance.

Graham believes that ongoing collaboration and idea exchange with the academic community are crucial for creating global awareness and response. Research, like that conducted by Milke and his team, can help establish fire management standards for refugee camps, including the implementation of hazard warning systems similar to those used in high-risk wildfire areas. Milke suggests using “red flag days” to raise awareness and alert refugees to take precautions with open flames and cooking.

Milke plans to continue his research by documenting fire events in Asia and updating the existing database, providing a critical tool for understanding the extent of the problem. The department also hopes to expand on Tan’s research by studying the speed and progression of fire spread.

Antonellis believes that academia plays a vital role in providing the necessary information to practitioners and stakeholders, helping them make informed decisions. Research like that being conducted at Maryland can be transformative in addressing the issue of fires in refugee camps.

Source: University of Maryland

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