Earthquake Hazards: Fire

Most people don't think about this; fires can break out in the aftermath of an earthquake. 

Damaged fuel tanks or leaking gas pipes can contribute to the fire danger. Fallen electrical lines and damaged transformers are only a couple of potential spark producers that can ignite fires.

Some fires could be ignited by stoves tipping over or a flammable object igniting on a stove left on during an earthquake. Gas stoves, water heaters, furnaces, and other appliances can also pose an increased fire risk if the gas isn’t shut off completely.

It's not just gas appliances. If something flammable lands on an electric stove that's on, it's likely to catch fire. Similarly an electric space heater that falls over, shakes over against a bed, couch, curtain or other flammable item could also ignite into flames.

To make matters worse, water availability, specifically through the municipality’s water supply, may be limited or non-existent due to water main damage caused by the earthquake, which makes fire suppression efforts more difficult.

But land is not the only place fires could occur. 

Interestingly, following a magnitude 7.8 earthquake in the Sea of Japan on July 12, 1993, there were reports of “several boats in the port spontaneously burst into flames, and winds from the tsunami drove the blaze inland, to devastating effect” ( The Weird Reason 'Tsunami Fires' Broke Out After Japan Earthquake). 

According to researchers, the bubbles and foaming in the ocean that were reported during the 1993 earthquake, and in the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, were likely methane gas released from the ocean floor during the rupture. The subsequent tsunami would have stirred up the gas, bringing it to the surface. The methane gas was probably ignited electrostatically. Tests have found that certain conditions could generate the needed electrostatic charge, which could ignite a fire.

Post-quake fires were also reported after the 1994 Northridge quake. There were reports of places where water was running through the streets from broken water mains, while fire was roaring at the same place—on the water—due to a break in a gas main.


Building on fire. Mstyslav Chernov, Creative Commons https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

While getting yourself under cover (protected) in the event of an earthquake is paramount, if you happen to be cooking on a stove the few seconds it takes to turn off the stove could possibly prevent a fire.

After the earthquake, if you smell natural gas--and you can't isolate where the smell is coming from and turn off the gas to the source--it's a good idea to shut off your gas main.

Additionally, if you feel you must use a fire after an earthquake (such as for a source of heat) remember that the fire department and fire suppression (like water) may not be available should the fire get out of hand. 

And don't forget the aftershocks.

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