Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 1, 2020.

Safety for the Afflicted

For millions of people living in refugee camps or informal settlements, fire is an ever-present threat to their lives, families, and livelihoods. A young fire safety engineer hopes to address this threat and improve the lives of the displaced and disenfranchised around the world.


The Moria Camp, located on the Greek island of Lesbos, was Europe’s largest refugee camp, a makeshift home for thousands of people fleeing war and economic deprivation who sought better lives in northern Europe. 

As countries closed their borders and the region’s migrant crisis deepened, however, Moria became synonymous with overcrowded desperation, as 20,000 people, many from Syria and Afghanistan, packed into an area intended for 3,000. Conditions in the camp were abysmal, and many of its inhabitants lacked access to medical services. Some lacked even basic shelter like tents and were forced to sleep in the open. 

On September 8, fires broke out in the camp. Wind-driven flames leapt between the shacks and tents, leaving little more than twisted metal and ash in their path. “We escaped from fire, but everything is black,” one refugee told the New York Times. Authorities determined that the fires had been set in protest by asylum seekers from Afghanistan who were upset over being forced to quarantine following an outbreak of COVID-19 in the camp. No deaths were immediately reported, but the blaze left 12,000 migrants homeless, about a third of whom were children. Compounding the problem, coronavirus infections multiplied rapidly among the camp’s population in the days following the fire.

While the situation in Moria was extreme, it illustrates a humanitarian challenge that exists in countries around the world. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, nearly 80 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and many live in dense, unregulated, and unsafe clusters of housing like the ramshackle dwellings that filled Moria. Efforts to block refugees from war-torn or otherwise unstable countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa from reaching safer, more developed nations in Europe and North America are expected to make the situation worse in the coming years. 

“Host countries and refugee camps will increasingly become permanent homes to tens of millions of refugees while many wealthy nations turn their backs,” the news website Axios reported in 2019. Additionally, roughly 1 billion people worldwide live in what are known as informal settlements—essentially slums with few or no services. 

A handful of studies have examined the fire problem in refugee camps, but they’ve been narrow in scope, examining the issue in a single camp or region. “One pernicious problem is the frequent destructive fires that break out in the refugee camps,” one study published by researchers at the University of San Diego in 2018 said. The study aimed to quantify the fire problem in nine refugee camps in Thailand, and found that between 2012 and 2016, fires in those camps affected nearly 9,000 refugees, killing 38 and injuring five.  

Danielle Antonellis wants to do something about it. This summer, the 30-year-old fire safety engineer and Massachusetts resident left her job at the global engineering firm Arup to start Kindling, a nonprofit organization created to address the fire problem in refugee camps and informal settlements. “Displacement is a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, events that seriously disrupt public order, or disasters,” Antonellis said, describing the variety of ways people can find themselves in a place like Moria. The focus of her new nonprofit, she said, is to “tackle fire safety inequalities, as I would call them—the disproportionate distribution of fire risk and fire consequences throughout society and geographic areas.”

NFPA Journal recently spoke with Antonellis about her views on the problem, the founding of Kindling, and her hopes for the future. 

RELATED: Read a November/December 2018 NFPA Journal feature article on a project to install smoke alarms in an informal settlement in South Africa; read about Danielle Antonellis’s work at Arup on fire safety in informal settlements

What led you to start Kindling? 

I graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in 2012. I first worked at Tyco, which is now Johnson Controls, for a couple of years, then I spent six years working with Arup, where I was based in Boston, Hong Kong, and London. I had great opportunities to work in different parts of the world and to learn what fire safety engineering looks like in different regions. Five years ago, Arup’s international development team raised the issue of fires in informal settlements, and I was shocked to learn how large of a problem it was. I was honestly frustrated I hadn’t learned about this in school or through my work in the industry. 

Was that the birth of the idea for Kindling? 

Yes. In the past five years, in addition to my consulting work, I’ve been researching fires in informal settlements and refugee camps with Arup. We learned how complex the fire challenges are in these contexts, but also identified ways to improve fire safety. I realized there’s still a need for an organization that could bring together the fire industry, international development sector, humanitarian sector, and local actors to make positive change happen at scale. So this summer I left my job at Arup and started Kindling. 

What exactly will your organization work toward? 

We have big ambitions to support improvements in fire safety in low-income communities, humanitarian contexts, and emerging nations generally. Part of our goal is to connect other fire safety professionals with a similar desire to use their expertise in a more charitable way with fire-safety challenges needing research and innovative solutions. We want to see a world where everyone has access to the technical, social, legal, and financial support they need to be safe and feel safe at home and in their communities. To do this, more inclusive and integrated approaches to fire safety and fire resilience are needed. Kindling will focus on advocacy, education and training, research and development, and strategic projects to support fire safety improvements in specific contexts. 

What do you mean by a need for “more inclusive” fire-safety approaches? 

Our work as fire safety professionals needs to reflect the needs, desires, and experiences of the people we are designing for and, importantly, with. We need to work collaboratively with other disciplines, such as social scientists, to better understand the impact of diverse cultures on risk perception and human behavior. There’s a long history, a long legacy, of fire safety codes, standards, and practices being copied and pasted from one place to another without being contextualized, and we know that’s not effective. In many developing countries, this has largely been influenced by frameworks introduced during periods of colonial rule. Inclusive fire safety means developing approaches that are locally achievable and appropriate—reflective of the local political, economic, sociocultural, technological, legal, and environmental context. 

Do we know how many people worldwide are living in slum conditions, informal settlements, and refugee camps? 

Globally, 1.6 billion people live in substandard housing, including 1 billion in slum conditions, meaning they lack durable housing, sufficient living space, easy access to safe water and sanitation, or protection against arbitrary rent increases or evictions—what’s referred to as secure tenure. Where secure tenure is an issue in a settlement, we call it an informal settlement. From a humanitarian perspective, the United Nations Refugee Agency reported there were 79.5 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide as of the end of 2019—26 million are refugees and 45.7 million are internally displaced persons, which means they are forced to leave their homes but still remain in their own country. There are also 4.2 million asylum seekers, as well as 3.6 million displaced Venezuelans living abroad. The total number of forcibly displaced persons has almost doubled since 2009. Some spend years living in refugee camps or in what are known as internally displaced persons camps. 

Moria, the refugee camp that burned in Greece in September, was Europe's largest, housing at one point some 20,000 people in a space suited for less than one-fifth of that. (Getty Images)

Have we seen more fires with this increase in displacement? 

I believe so. But unfortunately, I can’t back that up with statistics. There is a significant lack of data on fires and their impacts in both camp settings and informal settlements. While some humanitarian actors record information about major fire incidents, such as those with fatalities, I have not heard of any processes in place for systematically investigating and tracking all fire-related incidents in the humanitarian sector. While some cities do a better job of tracking fires in informal settlements, there are practical limitations, and this data often stays with the city government and isn’t reported at a national or international level.

What makes refugee camps or informal settlements prone to fire? 

As is the case with the wildland/urban interface, fire risk in these places is a function of complex interactions between the built environment, the natural environment, and people. The high density of dwellings is one factor. The fact that combustible construction materials like timber, plastic, cardboard, and bamboo are used in such close proximity is another. Then we have open cooking, issues with lighting and heating, and poor electrical connections. Flashover inside a dwelling can happen in less than a minute, and there’s little time before it spreads to adjacent dwellings. These fires can quickly evolve into large conflagrations.

How do refugee camps differ from informal settlements? 

From a physical perspective, there are similarities. Both are usually quite congested. Informal settlements are inherently not planned or regulated, so you might expect to see a bit more organization as far as the layout and homogenous tent structures in a refugee camp. But some camps have dwellings built of local materials, similar to informal settlements. On the occupant side, I would expect a greater mix of cultures in refugee camps. In Moria, for example, you had people from Africa, Syria, Afghanistan. 

In terms of regulation and response to fires or emergencies, informal settlements usually fall under the umbrella of the regulatory system of a larger city or community they’re located in, so you would have local approaches to fire safety and a fire brigade response to fires. In camps for refugees or displaced persons, though, oversight is coming from a mix of non-governmental humanitarian organizations, community-based organizations, and potentially the government, depending on how much involvement and acknowledgment they have of these places. In 2018, I hosted a workshop at Arup and asked attendees about how siginifcant fire safety was in their work. One of the responses we got back was that fire’s everybody’s problem and therefore it’s nobody’s problem.  

What happens when there’s a fire? 

There might be a local fire brigade that responds, or there might even be some efforts by humanitarian actors to support response, but what’s pretty much always true is that the residents are the first responders. People may shout to warn each other of the fire, help each other evacuate, grab their belongings, remove fuel from the path of the fire to create fire breaks, or even fight the fire directly with water, sand, or a fire extinguisher. People are often desperate to stop a fire because they can lose everything—loved ones, all their belongings, and even their identification records, which are particularly critical for refugees.

What are the first steps you plan to take with Kindling to address these problems? 

Firstly, we are focused on advocacy. We are raising the profile of these fire safety issues within the humanitarian sector and trying to bring stakeholders together to learn from past safety experiences and fires. For example, we are co-hosting a session, “Strategizing Fire Safety in Shelter and Settlements,” with Save the Children International at the upcoming Global Shelter Cluster meeting ( We are exploring how we can best support humanitarian actors, such as by collating lessons from past fires, developing an overview on the current state of fire safety in the humanitarian sector, and by supporting capacity building in the sector through fire safety training and development of evidence-based tools and resources. Ultimately, we aim to develop best practice to reduce deaths, injuries, and losses from fire in humanitarian contexts through interagency and inter-cluster coordination.

Danielle Antonellis, fourth from left, in India in 2016. (Danielle Antonellis)

Has work like that been done before? 

Yes and no. There have been some exciting projects on fire safety carried out in specific camps and contexts, such as in refugee camps in Lebanon. Operation Florian, a UK firefighter charity, did an expert opinion-based assessment of fire risk in the camps and made recommendations to Save the Children Lebanon. Many of these recommendations were then implemented by an interagency working group established to improve fire safety. They focused on fire safety education and training of refugees and humanitarian workers, as well as distribution of fire response equipment like fire extinguishers, fire beaters, and hooks. Firefighters have also carried out risk assessments in Thailand, Bangladesh, Kenya, and South Sudan, and worked with humanitarian agencies to improve fire safety in the particular camps assessed. 

But while there are case studies of proactive fire safety work to learn from, I am not aware of any international or global coordinated efforts like the ones I described. This will be the first time the fire safety industry and humanitarian sector strategically collaborative to tackle these complex fire challenges head on.

What’s your hope for the future? 

My hope is to inspire our best minds in the fire safety industry to engage these seemingly intractable problems, and to support local actors and innovations to address them. As a fire safety sector, we can play a really critical role in addressing these issues. I know together we can save many lives. 

ANGELO VERZONI is staff writer at NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images