Eastern Europe Has a Disturbing Fire Fatality Problem

The historic wildfires of 2010 swept through more than 700,000 acres of western Russia during the late summer, destroying thousands of homes and wreaking some $15 billion in damages.

Source Sasha Mordovets/Getty

Why you should care

The world’s highest rates of death by fire are mostly in former Soviet states.

When a deadly blaze tore through the Winter Cherry entertainment complex in Kemerovo, Russia, in March 2018, it captured the world’s attention. Trapped inside a movie theater, dozens of people — more than half of them children — died. “We’re burning,” wrote one girl in a series of frantic social media posts to her friends. “I love you. All of you.”

Later, it emerged that the theater’s fire alarm system was broken and the emergency exits blocked. The tragedy fueled protests against the government, which critics accused of covering up the actual number of deaths. But while it was one of Russia’s deadliest blazes in recent memory, fire casualties are hardly uncommon there — or elsewhere around Eastern Europe. In fact … 

You’re more than five times as likely to die in a fire in Russia than in the United States.

According to a 2019 report by the International Association of Fire and Rescue Services (CTIF), which relied on national government data from 2013 to 2017, Russia had 5.3 deaths by fire per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017, compared with 1 in 100,000 in the U.S. Other Eastern European countries weren’t far behind in topping the global list: Ukraine had 4.3 deaths per 100,000, Latvia 4.1 and Belarus 5.2. Fellow former Soviet republics were right behind them, comprising nearly all of the 10 deadliest countries. 

Thanks to a string of recent tragedies like the Kemerovo blaze, Russia has topped world headlines with its deadly fires. Between 2013 and 2015, a string of infernos at psychiatric institutions left scores dead. Several years earlier, there were the historic wildfires of 2010, which swept through more than 700,000 acres of western Russia during the late summer. The fires destroyed thousands of homes and wrought some $15 billion in damages.

In April, the Russian Investigative Committee reported that 7,296 people died in fires in 2018. At around 5 deaths per 100,000 individuals, that’s slightly lower than the CTIF report’s average over the past five years. But still, it’s about twice the number of estimated U.S. fire casualties — 3,515 in 2016, according to the most recent available statistics from the U.S. Fire Administration — in a country with less than half the population of the U.S. And it’s not about the sheer number of fires either. For example, in 2017, London saw 19,863 fires, while Moscow had 5,101. Only 103 people died in London’s blazes; in Moscow 116 perished. Meanwhile, New York City had 42,423 fires and only 86 deaths. Manpower, or the lack of it, doesn’t appear to be the deciding factor, as London had only 1 career firefighter for every 1,473 residents, compared with Moscow’s 1 per 1,096. For reference, the safest city surveyed was Yerevan, Armenia, where one fire death was reported in 2017. Taipei had two. 

 

According to Sergei Sokolov, a professor at the Russian State Fire Service Academy and co-author of the CTIF report, domestic fires account for the majority of Russia’s fatalities. As in many other countries, the fires are most often caused by improper handling of electrical appliances, while smoking is the leading cause of deaths.

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Battling a fire at a sawmill in Tomsk, Russia, in May 2019.

Source Taisiya VorontsovaTASS via Getty

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An area of scorched earth is seen near Maiaky village in southern Ukraine after a fire spread over a reed bed near the Dnister River in March 2019.

Source Nina Liashonok / Barcroft Media via Getty

So why do more people die in Russia than elsewhere? Sokolov chalks up the country’s problem — a generally low cultural awareness of fire safety — in part to carelessness. “You also see this in relation to cars, like the fact that we don’t like to use seat belts,” Sokolov says. “It’s this devil-may-care-attitude toward safety.” Many people lack even basic fire safety equipment in their homes, he adds. Russia’s remoteness — manifested in the often vast distances between cities, towns and villages — doesn’t exactly lend itself to speedy emergency responses either.

But Russia isn’t alone. In neighboring Ukraine, fires killed 713 people during the first three months of 2019, according to that country’s state emergency service — a rate which, if it continues at the same pace, would lead to 6.5 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants by the end of the year. In a statement, the Ukrainian Civil Protection Research Institute said 90 percent of deaths occur in residential buildings, “where no supervisory measures are taken by the state.” The institute’s parent agency, the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, has launched a working group to pin down the precise causes for the country’s high fire fatality rate.

There are some encouraging signs: Between 2013 and 2017, fire deaths decreased by 26 percent in Russia and 24 percent in Ukraine. In Russia, Sokolov says, local governments have begun installing more fire alert systems in apartment buildings, as well as launching public information campaigns. In short, he adds, authorities understand the problem and are doing something about it. “Maybe not as quickly and effectively as one would like,” he says, “but steps are still being taken.”

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