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Time for some fire lessons to be learned

By Chris Peterson | China Daily | Updated: 2017-07-01 09:14

When he lit his oven in London's Pudding Lane in September 1666, baker Thomas Farriner could have had no idea of the massive social change he was about to inadvertently trigger. History records that the Great Fire of London, as it became known, started at Farriner's bakery, not far from where China Daily's offices now stand.

The blaze quickly raced out of control and within two days had razed most of the city of London, including medieval streets and slums. There are no official estimates of casualties. The conflagration also eradicated all traces of the Great Plague, which had preceded it in 1665, killing off the thousands of rats and fleas that had carried the bubonic plague that claimed the lives of an estimated 100,000 Londoners.

From the ashes of the Great Fire rose such magnificent buildings as Sir Christopher Wren's St. Paul's Cathedral, a tourist landmark to this day. Historians agree that the huge blaze triggered both physical and social changes in the capital, similar to that caused by the German Blitz in 1940. In both cases, lessons were learned.

The Great Fire gave us the shape of the London we know today, while the Blitz, which flattened thousands of houses, mainly working class in east London, gave rise to the late 20th century phenomenon known as the tower block. The idea of stacking 150 households on a floor area little bigger than a couple of terraced houses went a long way toward solving Britain's housing crisis.

Until now.

As virtually all the tower blocks were constructed by local governments, they were used to house mainly low-income families, immigrants and asylum seekers. And there have been lingering problems affiliated to such tower block building, such as substandard construction work and the use of inferior materials.

Which brings us to the tragedy last month at Grenfell Tower, in London's Notting Hill area.

A fire, apparently caused by a faulty refrigerator in one of the flats, caused the building to ignite like a tinder box, the flames greedily feeding on foam and plastic cladding which reports now say was not fireproof and should never have been used. At least 79 people are known to have lost their lives, although the total may yet climb.

In the immediate aftermath, the British government ordered safety checks on similar tower blocks throughout the country-and guess what? At the time of writing, of the 60 tower blocks checked all had failed their safety inspections, with either immediate evacuation of residents ordered or phased departures to allow modifications to be carried out.

That has meant thousands of people being put into temporary accommodation in a country already suffering a serious housing crisis, particularly for what are called social, or affordable units-known as council houses when I was a kid.

So, what has the Grenfell Tower fire taught us?

A much greater awareness of inadequate safety provisions and a realization that a gulf has been growing between low-income families, immigrant groups and asylum seekers on the one hand, and the middle and upper classes on other.

Chinese cities are awash with veritable forests of tower blocks but, unless I am mistaken, the problems we have with a few miserable 24-story high buildings, in terms of fire, don't seem to apply.

Time for some lessons to be learned?

The author is managing editor for China Daily, Europe.

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