Study of the 1923 Great Kantō fire in BSSA Special Issue

September 19, 2023

Kanto fire imageThe 1923 Great Kantō earthquake is one of the most deadly and destructive natural disasters in history. The event had strong ground shaking lasting four minutes, hundreds of aftershocks, thousands of landslides, liquefaction, a tsunami and fires lasting days after the earthquake, and claimed nearly 142,000 lives. Even though the vast majority of deaths were caused by fires following the earthquake, less than 5% of the literature on the 1923 Kanto disaster discusses fire aspects in any depth. The conflagration holds important lessons for earthquake scientists, emergency response teams and city planners, according to a new paper published in the Special Issue of the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, coauthored by Charles Scawthorn, PEER Visiting Scholar.

This paper, Kantō Daikasai - The Great Kantō Fire following the 1923 Earthquake, by Charles Scawthorn (PEER), Tomoaki Nishino (DPRI, Kyoto University), J. Charles Schencking (Dept. History, Hong Kong University) and Janet Borland (Dept. History, International Christian University, Tokyo), provides a detailed account of the fire and its aftermath.

The destruction of Tokyo by fire following an earthquake was foreseen and foretold as early as 1905, yet no actions were taken to reduce the risk. Over 100 ignitions around the city grew into larger fires due to flammable wood-framed construction, high winds, and lack of firefighting water caused by breaks in water mains. These large fires soon merged into very large conflagrations that created their own localized high winds, further feeding the fires to the extent that fire whirls were created.

Authors emphasize that science can analyze and warn; economics, politics and resources must be mobilized for the warnings to have any effectiveness. The paper presents physic-based modeling that replicates the 1923 event and uses these techniques to model modern Japan to show that the danger of fire following earthquake still exists, in Japan and elsewhere, such as in Los Angeles, San Francisco, citing parallels to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.