“Fire is a good servant but a bad master.”
Remember the terrible Australia bushfire this year that took away the lives of cute innocent koalas and kangaroos? Fire, when it tips beyond our control, becomes a tragedy of enormous proportion capable of wiping out entire animal species and, in some cases, exotic flora and fauna that are already on the brink of extinction.
However, to think that incidences of fire are contained only in the deforested areas or unattended sites is steering the path of ignorance. Urban cities are as susceptible to fires too. In fact, urbanisation also means settlement densification; and to put it simply, densely-constructed buildings can be seen as a reconstructed forest, thus making any spread of fire quickly and easily.
Though the causes of fire may differ from incidents to accidents, multiple environmental design studies revealed that “frequent fire disasters are often common in crowded areas” because high density of people increase fire risks and congestion of buildings impede rescue efforts such as getting firefighting equipment to access the fire.
Bringing this situation of mishap closer to home here are the eight great fires in the history of Singapore dating as far back as 1961 to more recent tragedies of 2019.
12 August 2019 — Vegetation fire at East Coast Park (ECP)
Vegetation fire, as its name suggests, is also known as wildfire. They can be caused by man or acts of God; however, it is commonly triggered by higher temperatures and dryer climate.
Who would expect Singapore—an urban forest—to fall prey to vegetation fire? On 12 August 2019, a raging fire occurred between Marina East Drive and East Coast Park Service Road and was reported to cover the size of two football fields. A total of 50 firefighters and 12 emergency vehicles were deployed to quench the enormous flame. Thankfully, there were no casualties.
21 June 2019 — Jalan Buroh Blaze
On 21 June 2019, a massive fire erupted at a Jurong Industrial area at 43 Jalan Buroh.
Similar to the vegetation fire at ECP, the flame engulfed an area the size of two football fields. However, there were hundreds of flammable LPG cylinders at the place of the incident, thus aggravating the spread.
120 firefighters and 35 emergency vehicles were mobilised to curb the escalation. Balls of fire, grey mushroom clouds of smoke, and multiple sounds of explosions were seen and heard beyond the vicinity—as far away as the Bishan area.
Unfortunately, the fatal fire resulted in one death and left two workers injured.
4 March 2019 — Lim Chu Kang Cemetery Fire
In the early hours of 4 March 2019, vegetation fire broke out near the Lim Chu Kang Chinese Cemetery. SCDF firefighters took 19 hours to fully extinguish the flames—one of the most extended operations by the Singapore Civil Defence Force of late.
There were a couple of reasons for this “slow-burning, deep-seated fire”. Firstly, the blaze involved piles of timber waste—a combustible yet resistant material. Secondly, the stubborn fire was aggravated by the windy conditions and thick vegetation. With all things considered, it became an uphill battle to bring the fire under control.
It was such a prolonged battle that an on-site area was set up to allow for the firefighters to recuperate while swapping shifts.
22 March 2018 — Kranji Warehouse
A fire broke out in Kranji warehouse on 22 March 2018. Similar to the cemetery fire, piles of waste materials in the warehouse exacerbated the fire situation causing “deep-seated slow-burning flames”.
To make matters worse, the zinc roof traps the heat and the smoke within the shed, causing the firefighters to be confined in a smoke-logged condition where visibility and breathing are severely hampered. Also, during the firefighting process, there was a possibility that the buckled zinc roof would collapse. The fire took eight hours to put out.
20 March 2018 — Pulau Busing Blaze
Pulau Busing is an island off the southwestern coast of Singapore. However, if you have any plans to visit the place for leisure, please perish that thought as the area is heavily industrialised and is home to chemical storage and a fuel oil refinery.
On 20 March 2018, a bolt of lightning struck the roof of the tank and caused the oil storage to catch fire. Almost immediately, the oil tank was engulfed in flames. 128 firefighters were quickly deployed to the site to combat the inferno.
Due to its intensity, it took them six hours to completely extinguish the radiant flame. The fire was so intense; black smoke was visible from the sea and on the mainland of Singapore.
6 October 1978 — Spyros Disaster
On 6 October 1978, the Greek Tanker, Spyros, was docked at Jurong Shipyard for a special survey. A missing drip tray led to an unexpected explosion and a flash fire that followed.
The number of casualties and fatalities were high as at the time of the blast, 167 people were working onboard. Besides a large number of people on board, the vessel engine room was not designed for emergency evacuation of anything more than the usual engine room crew. The failure to escape in time led to high casualty figures—76 people killed and 69 people injured from the industrial disaster.
Following this mishap, the government tightened workplace safety regulations, reviewed current safety measures, implemented stricter guidelines such as the prohibition of cutting torches on board, imposed stiffer penalties, and levied more substantial fines. Apart from high regulatory adherence, courses and seminars on basic safety regulations were also conducted for workers.
21 November 1972 — Robinsons Inferno
One of the worst fires in Singapore’s history within retail stores happened at Robinsons departmental store. Located in the heart of the business district, the inferno was caused by a short circuit of an overloaded electrical branch circuit located at the ground floor.
Initially, the fire went unnoticed and left to grow, fueled by the Christmas goods from the store which were mostly combustible. Nine people were killed in the fire; eight of them were employees of the store.
The blazing fire even destroyed the neighbouring roof of the adjacent UOB building. At its peak, the flames were said to “shot up to around 60 metres high”, which is equivalent to an 18-storey tall building, and was noticeable from as far as Toa Payoh and Jurong.
25 May 1961 — Bukit Ho Swee Fire
The Bukit Ho Swee Fire is the most notorious conflagration in our history. The great fire broke out within the squatter settlement of Bukit Ho Swee on 25 May 1961 and allegedly started in Kampong Tiong Bahru.
Due to the fire-favourable factors—such as wind conditions, flammable construction materials, and densely populated attap houses—the flame spread rapidly and uncontrollably within the settlement. It destroyed thousands of homes, a school, and many business establishments.
The aftermath of the wreckage was devastating in casualties, death, and infrastructure. The disaster killed four, injured 54, and resulted in over 16,000 people left homeless.
This fire disaster was a watershed in the history of Singapore public housing. It was the first emergency project of the Housing and Development Board where the ministry had to quickly relocate and resettle the victims of the disaster.
Despite Bukit Ho Swee Fire being the most massive fire disaster in Singapore, the cause of the fire remained a mystery up till today. Speculations surround theories of an unresolved gang fight, kitchen negligence, and a conspiracy of the ruling government as a means to force and relocate rural residents out of their kampongs.
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