High-rise fire in Milan, Italy quickly surged through the outside cladding of the building
Italian fire fighters battled a high-rise blaze in Milan that spread rapidly through a 20-storey residential building and poured black smoke into the air on Sunday, 29 August 2021. A huge plume of black smoke rose from the reinforced concrete building named the Torre dei Moro and was visible for kilometres. Flames continued to burn inside nearly three hours after a dozen fire trucks and ambulances responded to the alarm. A fire fighter told the Corriere della Sera newspaper the blaze was still limited when they arrived and firefighters were able to get residents out. Within an hour, the flames had spread from the 15th floor, where the fire appeared to have started, quickly devouring the entire facade of the building.
Witnesses have said the fire, which started on the 15th floor, quickly surged through the outside cladding of the building. Video of the blaze showed panels melting off the building in liquefied clumps.
Mayor Giuseppe Sala said there were no reports of injuries or deaths but that fire fighters were kicking down doors, apartment by apartment, to make sure there were no victims. He said about 20 people were evacuated without incident.
The 60-metre tall building, part of a recent development project, was designed to look like the keel of a ship and included an aluminium sail on its roof, which burnt and fell to the street in pieces.
Unidentified residents told Corriere that the panels on the facade were supposed to have been fire-resistant.
Fire fighters said the fire involved a 20-storey building, although plans for the project say it has 16 residential floors plus two underground.
"The tower was built just over 10 years ago and it is unacceptable that such a modern building should have proved totally vulnerable," Mayor Beppe Sala said. "What was clear from the start was that the building's outer shell went up in flames far too quickly, in a manner reminiscent of the Grenfell Tower fire in London a few years ago."
The deaths in Britain's Grenfell Tower fire were blamed on exterior cladding panels made of flammable material. Owners of flats in similar buildings across Britain have since been forced to remove such panels at a cost estimated to run into billions of dollars, forcing many residents into economic hardship.
A growing global threat
Fires fuelled by combustible exterior wall assemblies, which are often added to buildings to improve aesthetics and energy efficiency, used to be uncommon but the number of incidents has risen drastically in the past 30 years, according to Birgitte Messerschmidt, director of Applied Research at NFPA.
“According to research done at Imperial College in London, the frequency of façade fires in large buildings has increased by seven times in the last three decades,” Messerschmidt writes in an article published in NFPA Journal in May 2020. “Other researchers have identified 59 fires involving external walls on high-rise buildings between 1990 and 2018, with 36 of these occurring since 2010.” And as global trends favouring urbanisation bring more people to cities and more high-rises are constructed to house those people, Messerschmidt said this problem will only get worse in the coming years.
One of the first steps needed to address the problem is collecting more data about façade fires. “It is important to recognize that there is an opportunity to learn from failures, and even successes and develop strategies based on real-world fire incidents,” Messerschmidt writes. “The education of stakeholders, growth from previous failures, and quantification of this global issue demand much more data than are currently available today.”
Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, NFPA