Dubai woke up Sunday morning with a fire raging through a skyscraper in the Jumeirah Lakes Towers community. As I scrolled along Facebook, I realize the building looked familiar. Hey, that’s where I used to live!
The fire began at 2 a.m. and wasn’t put out until well in the day. It took firefighters 20 minutes to get there. I’m not sure if that meets acceptable levels of response times for high-rise fires. New reports over the past two days have quoted residents saying sprinklers and fire alarm systems failed to activate – outrageous considering there was a massive fireball above their heads. Amazingly, there are no injuries or deaths.
The spark is still unknown but what contributed to the fire spreading so quickly was the building’s cladding, something that is a common feature on buildings here. The Gulf News ran a story last May after there were three high-rise fires in Sharjah, saying that about 500 buildings were constructed with this cladding. It’s not fire-resistant which I imagine would break fire code in the U.S. Builders here preferred to use it because it’s cheaper. These claddings are made of low-density polyethylene, a petrochemical product that burns within minutes compared to certified fire-retardant panels that repel fire. There are no civil regulations that prevent this.
If we were still living there, the fireball would have melted off our eyelashes and engulfed our apartment in smoke and soot.
Earlier this year, a building in Tecom and another in Dubai Marina went up in flames as well. The culprit? Cladding that is, in effect, kindling. And then this week we have the fire in JLT. It turned out that it wasn’t my building but the building right to the front and side of us. If we were still living there, the fireball would have melted off our eyelashes and engulfed our apartment in smoke and soot. I used to wonder about these buildings, what would happen if there was a fire. I knew from experience that they were poorly constructed. It was brand new when we moved in but nearly immediately things began falling apart: sewage smells coming from inadequately laid water and wastewater pipes, the kitchen light fixture that suddenly had water pouring through it.
So, let’s recap: Hundreds of buildings in the U.A.E. are wrapped in highly flammable material. There are no regulations preventing this. And even though at least six recent fires were made worse – resulting in people’s deaths and untold damages in people’s health and property – there are no regulations preventing the use of this material or forcing building owners to replace the cladding with fire-retardant material.
And now, according to an article in The National this morning, Dubai Municipality is saying that since the building is in a free zone – an area where foreigners are allowed to purchase properties – Dubai is essentially not responsible for what happens there.
Given all this, why would anyone live in a high-rise here?