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Antarctica Fire History

The chances are that you have come to this page hoping for a reasonably complete summary of the history of fires in Antarctica, unfortunately for the time being at least you are going to be disappointed as there is no such summary as far as I am aware. A number of people emailing me and asking for such information over the last few years led me to starting this page in the hope of building up a picture of fires in Antarctica.

Antarctic Fire Hazards

There are no wildland fires in Antarctica.
With the very unlikely exception of some exposed coal seams somehow catching fire or possibly banks of peat that have built up over thousands of years on sub-Antarctic islands though are permanently damp (of which there is no record or evidence of either) there is really nothing at all in Antarctica that is naturally there that could burn. 98% of the continent is permanently covered with snow and ice and the other 2% is largely bare exposed rock. There is some vegetation, but nothing more than mosses, lichens and sparse growth of grass in a few places, certainly nothing resembling a tree or a shrub of even the most stunted variety.

The fire hazards in Antarctica therefore are faced by the human habitations of which there are about 65 in total with around 37 being manned year-round, the others are summer-only. Despite the general lack of combustible materials, Antarctica is a very dangerous place to have a fire and fire is in fact the single greatest danger in Antarctica.

Antarctica is a very dangerous place to have a fire and fire is in fact the single greatest danger in Antarctica.
The cold temperatures make it very dry, as it is the windiest place on earth there is likely to be a wind blowing a gale much of the time more than strong enough to fan any flames. Finally, due to the temperature averaging below freezing across the whole continent if there is a fire, then there is unlikely to be very much liquid water to fight it with if any at all.

The response usually is to make sure everyone is out of danger and safe and then stand back and watch the fire burn itself out - of course attempts are made to fight the fire, it's just that for the reasons stated above, they are rarely of any value.

As Antarctica is such an extreme environment and so remote from any chance of help or rescue, the prospect of a station being gutted means not only the loss of the building/s, but also possibly the loss of "life support".

Bases in Antarctica are designed to survive fires by being made up of a number of separate buildings with a significant distance between them, if they are connected then it is by small insubstantial connections. In this way if a building does catch fire, the chances are the fire won't spread to other nearby buildings.

The First Fire in Antarctica

The first recorded fire in Antarctica happened during the 1898-1900 British Antarctic Expedition led by Carsten E. Borchgrevink, aboard the Southern Cross. A member of the expedition set fire to his mattress during the winter nearly burning down the hut. If this had happened it could have led to the death of all members of the expedition with the loss of supplies and shelter.

As with most of the mistakes made by the early Antarctic explorers, it was a hard but well learned lesson. Many Antarctic bases have emergency supplies stored in a hut near to the base but well away so that if the unthinkable happens and the base burns down in the depths of winter when no-one can either get in or out, there should be enough supplies and shelter for the base members to survive until help can arrive.

Fires in Antarctica
data given in chronological order,  /  means no data available
Station Date Building/s Casualties Notes
Mawson, Australia 1958 Main power house / Burnt down during construction
Mawson, Australia April 3rd 1959 Main power house / Burnt down  - picture
Almirante Brown
Argentina
April 12th 1984 All / Burnt down by the station leader/physician so as not to stay another winter. The US ship Hero rescued the station personnel.
McMurdo, USA May 1991 (18th?) Old Chapel - Quonset hut none Burnt down
Rothera, UK Sept 2001 Bonner marine laboratory none Building destroyed, caused by an electrical fault, building destroyed. Prevented  3 of 5 research projects in process at the time from continuing.
Progress - Russia Oct 5th 2008 "2 story building" 1 killed, 2 seriously injured Building destroyed, radio equipment destroyed so unable to contact outside world for 4 days
Scott - New Zealand May 2009 A-frame hut none Building destroyed, caught fire during re-ignition of heater after re-fuelling.
Comandante Ferraz Base - Brazil Feb 25th 2012 Generator hut 2 killed Building and generators destroyed, over 40 evacuated to Punta Arenas, Argentina  more here
The heavy equipment maintenance building burnt down at McMurdo station some years back. I saw pics of it when I was there but don't know anything about it.
Jacob - Mcmurdo - USA

McMurdo Research Station - USA - McMurdo Sound, Antarctica - May 1991 - Old Chapel Fire

We experienced a fire in Antarctica in May of 1991, at McMurdo Station. I was there - I was the Navy’s Officer in Charge of the Winter-Over Detachment. I think it was May 18th. I know for sure it was a Saturday night. The building was referred to as the Old Chapel. It was a typical Quonset hut, but was currently being used to store musical instruments and as a band practice area. The band was playing in the Club across the street that night, so there was little loss of contents. The Quonset hut, on the other hand, was destroyed. It was also located immediately adjacent to Building 155 (the main dormitory, galley, ship’s store, laundry, etc.)

Because of extremely cold temperatures and high winds (windchill was approximately -85F), the fire was difficult to fight - sparks were flying. Our fire fighters sprayed the side of Bldg 155 to create an ice barrier to prevent any sparks from catching that building on fire. The fire fighters spent about five hours fighting it and finally extinguished the fire by dumping loads of snow on what was left of the building around 4 am. No injuries or deaths. No determination of cause.

Mike Baldwin - by email


Rothera Research Station - UK - Adelaide Island, Antarctic Peninsula - September 2001 - Bonner Marine Laboratory Fire

Top picture
In preparation for the arrival of the aeroplanes arriving at the start of the summer, the runway is cleared of snow by the snow blowers. This photo was taken 18 days before the Bonner Laboratory was reduced to rubble by a major fire. Attempts were made to try to put the fire out, which included snowblowing as in this picture; but to no avail.

Middle picture
The laboratory building already consumed by fire, this is the moment that the roof was blown off. The miserable day happened to also be the windiest of the winter with winds gusting up to 80+ knots. Fire is a major threat on base, this one caused by an electrical fault, and is very difficult to tackle once it takes hold. Prevention of injury to personnel is paramount, and luckily here no one was hurt. However, the scientific work was severely affected.

Bottom picture
This is what was left of the laboratory building at Rothera, on the peninsula, that had been consumed by fire the day before.

Words and pictures by Jenny Dean



Scott Research Station - New Zealand - McMurdo Bay - May 2009 - A-Frame


The A-Frame hut on Ross Ice Shelf, Antartica24 May 2009
MEDIA STATEMENT
A FRAME HUT FIRE IN ANTARCTICA

The iconic A Frame Hut near Scott Base, Antarctica burnt down on Saturday evening. A routine inspection and change over of diesel fuel tanks, which supplied the heating to the hut, was being completed by Scott Base Staff. Upon re-ignition of the heater the priming fuel flashed over and set fire to the hut. Attempts to fight the fire proved futile as the timber and bitumen hut burnt quickly.

Chief Executive of Antarctica New Zealand, Lou Sanson said, "We are extremely thankful that no one was seriously injured in the fire. It is a testimony to the skill of our staff that they were able to think quickly and remove themselves from harm."

The hut burnt down as staff tried to re-light the heating systemThe A Frame Hut had become an icon of the modern Antarctic era. It was moved out onto the Ross Ice Shelf in 1971 from the McMurdo Station ice wharf. Discarded by the United States Antarctic Programme, the Kiwis of Scott Base quickly made it their own. It was primarily used as a base for field training and as a retreat for the staff of Scott Base. The A Frame Hut has housed many notable New Zealand scientists, artists and politicians, and was the favourite haunt of Sir Edmund Hillary.

Lou Sanson said, "The A Frame represented something uniquely Kiwi in Antarctica. It was the concept of a mountain hut mixed with a bach and it said something about who we are. The A Frame Hut will be sadly missed by all those who have been part of the New Zealand Programme in Antarctica over the last 38 Years".
Ends

BBC article




Progress Research Station - Russia - Larsemann Hills/Prydz Bay, East Antarctica - October 5th 2008 - Two Story Building

File:Progress-ant hg.jpg
Photo Credit: Hannes Grobe/Alfred Wegener Institute
MOSCOW, October 9 (RIA Novosti)
A two-story building, part of Russia's Progress station in Antarctica, caught fire killing one construction worker and seriously injuring two others, the expedition's head said on Thursday.

Valery Lukin said the fire broke out on Sunday on the station, where 29 people are based, completely destroying the radio equipment, which made it impossible to contact Russian officials about the incident until Thursday.

"All the radio equipment was destroyed. One of the station's construction workers... died, and two others received serious fractures and injuries," Lukin said.

The injured have been taken to a nearby clinic and are receiving the necessary medical treatment. "There is no need for an evacuation due to medical concerns," Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute said in a statement.

The earliest date that an evacuation could be carried out is early November.

An investigation into the fire is being carried out.

The Progress research station was opened in 1989 and is located in the Larsemann Hills in East Antarctica. The station is around 1.5 kilometers from China's Zhong Shan research station, where the injured Russians are receiving medical treatment.
ENDS

The personnel on the base at the time were unable to cope with the fire and the building was completely destroyed by the fire.

"There is no need for an evacuation due to medical concerns," Russia's Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, which oversees the RAE program, said in a statement through Novosti the Russian State News Agency

"At present, the station team lives in the old, small houses left by previous builders. The fire did not spread to the other station facilities, so we have the mess hall and the galley, the medical unit, 'warm' and 'cold' warehouses, all transport vehicles and also the facilities of the new wintering station under construction," Valery Lukin, head of RAE said.

"All food, fuel and medical supplies were preserved," Lukin added. "The people are provided with normal meals, polar clothing and medical service."

Antarctic Sun article



Arson

I  wintered over at McMurdo in 1981 with the Naval Support Force. I was a Utilitiesman 2nd class assigned to the Maintenance Division.

Sometime in October, at a very late hour, one of my buddies and I were walking from the PO Club and noticed smoke coming from the Chapel. He ran back to the club and notified the Fire House who were on the scene within 3 minutes. While he was doing this, I was able to get inside and pull some of the pews away from the fire and when my buddy returned, we were able to pull a rug that was in flames out the back door before the Firemen arrived. Fortunately, only a small portion of the interior was damaged and was rebuilt the following summer. After the fire was put out, the Firemen could not find a cause and were baffled.

It was the next day that we found out that it was actually an attempted arson committed by one of our Winter Over friends who had become intoxicated and chose to commit this act in order to be flown out quicker than he had been originally scheduled. Another buddy of mine had seen him run out of the chapel but did not see any smoke or flame and thought nothing of it at the time so he went on to his quarters. He came forward the next morning after hearing what had happened and told of what he saw and thus the story goes.

I do not choose to reveal the arsons name seeing how this was an occurrence of 28 years ago. I can tell you that he was a Naval 1st Class Petty Officer who got his wish and was flown out at first flight, did not R&R in ChCh, and was flown directly back to the states where he was charged. I do not know the outcome of the charges.

By email

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