Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on May 1, 2017.

Night Fires

A blaze destroys a migrant camp in France and highlights the fire dangers faced by these facilities worldwide

BY ANGELO VERZONI

In recent years, waves of migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere have fled their war-torn countries in record numbers, searching for safer homes in European countries like Britain. Last month, thousands who had successfully made it as far as France found their lives in danger as a late-night fire raged through a migrant camp in the town of Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk on France’s north coast.

The fire broke out during a fight between Afghan and Kurdish migrants living in the densely populated camp, according to The New York Times, and destroyed nearly all the camp’s makeshift homes, displacing its 1,500 residents. Nobody was hurt in the blaze, although hundreds were said to be missing afterward, believed to have fled to unknown destinations. The cause of the fire is under investigation, but French officials told the Times that it was set intentionally by a few migrants intent on destroying the camp.

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The Grande-Synthe camp saw tensions between inhabitants rise in November, when the closing of a much larger camp in nearby Calais led to the arrival of Afghan migrants, who clashed with the Kurds. In October, the French government had decided to evacuate and demolish the Calais camp, known as the Jungle, which housed up to 10,000 migrants, most of them trying to get to Britain. The decision sparked conflicts between police and migrants who refused to leave the camp. Three days into the French operation to shutter the Jungle, departing migrants torched shacks in the camp, igniting a similarly large fire that firefighters struggled to put out.

With their makeshift wooden barracks, cramped living quarters, and potentially feuding populations, migrant or refugee camps are primed for disastrous fires—and they aren’t limited to Europe. In 2014, Operation Florian, a British charity that teaches fire safety and provides firefighting equipment to less-developed countries, conducted fire risk reduction field studies for these types of environments in Kenya and Thailand. According to its website, its study of the issue is ongoing.

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer for NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Getty Images