IRIS-fire is an international and interdisciplinary research project aimed at ‘Improving the Resilience of Informal Settlements against Fire’.
Over one billion people across the globe live in informal shack settlements, and this number is steadily increasing. Many of these informal settlements (i.e. shantytowns, favelas, slums) are at constant risk of lethal, large-scale destructive fires due to flammable construction materials, heating and cooking methods, shack proximity, etc.
For occupants of these shacks death and injury from fire constitute ‘a serious public health problem’; for example 96% of the world’s burn-related deaths (≈300,000/year) occur in lower and middle-income countries (WHO 2016).
Africa is the fastest urbanizing continent on earth, with an average 7% increase in population between 1990-2015, increasing the population in urban clusters by 484 million. The majority of new urban districts are informal settlements constructed ad-hoc using available materials, with no formal space planning, and with few explicit fire safety measures.
Statistics vary, but in South Africa it is estimated that up to 33% of the country’s population now live in informal settlements. In Cape Town the number of informal dwellings grew from 28,000 in 1993 to 104,000 in 2006 and 220,000 in 2011.
This project initially focuses on informal settlements in and around Cape Town, where the burden of shack fires is particularly high. Across South Africa, there are an estimated ten shack fires a day, often leaving residents dead and in some cases many thousands more homeless.
In Cape Town, the ‘fire capital of South Africa’, the situation is particularly stark. Annually there are ≈500 deaths and 15,000 fire-related hospital admissions due to fire in the city, of which substantial proportions are residents of informal settlements.
In recent years there have been numerous large-scale fires in Cape Town, leaving thousands homeless and many dead; Khayelitsha fire, Jan 2013 (4000 homeless, 5 dead); Kayamandi fire, March 2013 (4500 homeless, 2 dead); Masiphumelele fire, Nov 2015 (4000 homeless, 2 dead); the Boxing Day fires, 2015 (8 dead), and the Imizamo Yethu fire, March 2017 (10,000 homeless, 4 dead).
Current discussions on informal settlement policy in South Africa, as in many other jurisdictions internationally, lack the necessary research base to develop creative, interdisciplinary, grounded solutions to fires in informal settlements.
Some policies have stigmatized the individuals living within informal settlements, rather than acknowledging the physical challenges and dynamics that create large-scale fires and exploring ways to practically mitigate the risk factors within the local social and physical context.
In other cases, policies have simply focused on high-end technical solutions, ignoring the complex political, economic and social dynamics of informal settlements within which interventions must be implemented. The key to reducing damage due to fires is to prevent fire spread from the structure of origin; a key concept in western formal settlement design.
Thus the specific challenge for this project is to determine how an interdisciplinary approach to fire science and engineering can improve the resilience of informal settlements against fires.
The research team comprises of engineers and fire safety scientists from The University of Edinburgh and Stellenbosch University, and includes expertise in the social sciences, wildfire and fire dynamics, forensic investigations, and structural fire engineering.
The Western Cape Disaster Management, Fire and Rescue Service are also key partners in the project providing essential expertise and experience of informal settlement fires, as well as their time and resources for the planned experiments.
The IRIS-Fire team, led by Lesley Gibson will be holding a fire workshop at the 2019 Festival of Creative Learning on Tuesday 19 February 2019.
Any University of Edinburgh staff or student may sign up for the event and but we think it may especially appeal to those with interest in: Fire, urban planning and design, geography and anyone interested in urbanisation in the Global South.
Fires in informal settlements are devastating to those living in these urban environments. After a fire, urban redesign (known as reblocking) can take place to facilitate the provision of formal services such as water and sanitation. Basic fire safety such as adequate spacing between homes may be implemented but innovative fire reduction design is usually not considered.
This workshop will introduce participants to the challenge of informal settlement fires, and will then enable participants to consider fire spread reduction in the designing of a reblocked informal settlement through practical learning and experimentation. Participants will work in teams to decide on a design which they will build out of prefabricated modelled dwellings. All teams will have an equal number of modelled dwellings and will be challenged to arrange the dwellings within a predefined space with a focus on fire spread prevention. At the end of the workshop a fire scientist will be invited to select a dwelling to set alight and we will observe the fire spread of each team’s modelled reblocked settlement and discuss the effectiveness of the various designs.
We have been working on the design of dwellings for the experiment and have a combination of steel and cardboard dwellings. Single dwellings, double dwellings and L-shaped dwellings.
The single dwellings are complete and testing of fuel load and optimal distance has started. Once we have the double and L-shaped dwellings welded together, we will finalise the number of dwellings for each team (it is looking like around 50 at the moment) and the density at which teams will need to arrange their dwellings.
There is plenty of creative learning happening for the organisers of this event and we can’t wait to welcome participants to learn alongside us.