The environmental impact of fires - Are you prepared


The combustion triangle is fairly easy to understand. A fire needs only three things present to burn: Oxygen, Heat and Fuel. Beyond that, the equation gets far more complex.

Fire has long been one of the most dangerous, destructive and deadly risks to humans. Modern insurance in America can trace its roots back to the colonial period when Benjamin Franklin and his Union Fire Company brought together other fire companies to form a mutual fire insurance company. Of course the primary concern in Franklin’s day was property loss and loss of life. Today, the risks are not so straightforward.

Up in Flames

Today a structure fire can involve hazardous materials or waste with the potential to result in toxic air emissions and contamination of soil, groundwater, and surface water. Manufacturing sites and other high-risk occupancies present obvious fire concerns due to the chemicals and processes utilized. However, so do other operations and occupancies that may be perceived to have a lower exposure. For example, a plastic product manufacturing firm may not use any significant quantities of hazardous materials, but a catastrophic fire can create toxic combustion by-products such as dioxins and furans. Even a routine office building fire can have environmental impacts from the combustion of furnishings, plastics, electronics, and janitorial supplies.

Consider 2019’s tragic fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Not only did the fire release significant amounts of carbon and particle pollution from the burning wood of the structure, but also 460 tons of lead in the roof and spire. This resulted in the release of 4 times the typical annual amount of lead emissions in France.

As the fire raged, toxic lead particles were released into the air and onto the ground and structures in the area. In addition, fire-fighting water used to extinguish the blaze resulted in a release of contaminants to stormwater and surface water. The cathedral is directly adjacent to the Seine River. After significant government sampling and testing, the area around the cathedral was sealed off in August 2019 to remove hazardous dust that had settled on homes, schools, businesses, and the ground in the surrounding area.

Getting Started

There are many fire root causes and sources, but generally incidents can be categorized as one of three general types: structure fires, vehicle fires, or outside fires.

Structure fire sources are typically traced to faulty electrical equipment or building systems, hot work operations, hazardous materials, natural sources, or intentional arson.

Vehicles with petroleum fluid leaks or faulty electrical systems are a common cause of structure fires in garages, car maintenance, and storage facilities.

Outside fire sources can involve lightning, smoking, campfires, uncontrolled brush burning, and other ignition sources. In the US, outside and unclassified fires comprise 75% of intentionally set incidents; and can result in larger wildfires that sometimes imperil structures miles away.

In manufacturing settings, fires and explosions can also result from chemical reactions; equipment and pressure vessel failures; heated chemicals, tars and oils; combustible dust; spilled chemicals; and volatile vapors. Fires involving such materials can lead to extensive damage and environmental harm. Hot work involving welding or cutting torches (as in the case of the Notre Dame fire), soldering, burners, heat treating equipment, and power equipment are also leading causes of structure fires at manufacturing facilities.

Toxic Plumes

Once ablaze, as a modern structure burns, building materials and contents release substances that may include contaminants such as: general pollutants/indicators, metals, particulates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), chlorinated dioxins and furans, brominated dioxins and furans, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polyfluorinated compounds. In short, a lot of bad stuff.

And when that bad stuff is released, there are typically short- and long-term environmental impacts.

Short-term fire effects include the impact to the local environment within the fire smoke plume zone and the water runoff zone and are typically concentrated in the local area/vicinity of the fire and immediate surrounding areas. These may be easier to mitigate and prevent from escalating.

Long-term fire effects include impacts that are not immediately felt or recognized. These effects are more likely to impact the surface water/sediments, groundwater, and soils around the fire site. The list of hazards that result from long-term effects can be extensive and include:

  • Air emissions/inhalation health effects
  • Surface water and stormwater impacts
  • Soil and groundwater impacts

Make a Plan

Just like each family should have a fire escape plan; every organization should have emergency planning and controls in place to deal with the potential environmental impacts of a fire. Organizations should ensure:

  • Local fire authorities are aware of chemicals or operations that could complicate firefighting or create an environmental concern
  • Relevant staff understand what fire suppression systems are onsite and are familiar with their operation
  • Onsite fire brigades should have updated training and certifications
  • Stormwater management systems are able to contain contaminated materials from fire suppression systems or firefighting water

In addition, organisations should:

  • Comply with industry standards and regulations
  • Conduct inspections and identify exposures
  • Identify mitigating factors
  • Practice and train


Every business has some form of environmental exposure and a fire incident can greatly increase pollution liabilities. No site is immune to these risks, not even relatively benign sites like a finished product warehouse or office building.  Industrial facilities with stored chemicals and hazardous wastes have a far greater risk exposure.

Fires can and do result in environmental impacts from the contents of the building. Even putting out the fire can create environmental impacts from firefighting water and foam.   Because the short- and long-term effects of fires have the potential to threaten a company’s ability to survive financially, appropriate prevention and response plans are essential.

Authored by AXA XL


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