Fires in Informal Settlements- IRIS Fire project

According to the latest records, there is a huge growth in the number of people living in the informal settlements in our world. Approximately,  25% of our urban population live in informal settlements. The informal settlements can be described as the residential areas where there is a lack of the governmental infrastructure and services (ex. drinking water, waste recollection, energy, low structural quality and overcrowding).



As everything else in these residential areas, fires are also considerably different than the normal residential fires. In the last few years, there has been massive fire accidents which totally destroyed a lot of these informal shacks. Currently, there has been some awareness regarding the importance of studying such a massive fire engineering problem.

With 1.4 Million GB Pounds grand from the Global Challenges Research Fund, a research team from the University of Edinburgh’s school of Engineering and the school of social and political science is going to study the fire safety in the informal settlements. The team from the university of Edinburgh will work closely with a team from  Stellenbosch University in South Africa to tackle the Informal settlements fires’ problem in Cape Town, SA. As an IMFSE graduate I was definitely interested in joining this team and investigate this interesting engineering problem. Based on that, I applied to do my PhD at the university of Edinburgh and work on this project for my PhD thesis.

[A video shared by the school of engineering at the university of Edinburgh to present the project :  ]

What captured my attention to this project was that more than one billion people live in the informal settlements around the world and also back in my region this is an urgent problem. The number of the informal settlements’ population is vastly increasing every year.  The main goal of such project will be to put hands on some innovative solutions to decrease the impact of the fire hazards on the informal settlements.



As a PhD student, I will be working under the supervision of Dr. David Rush and Dr. Stephen Welch from the engineering school and with the guidance of Dr. Graham Spinardi from the social and political science school to touch upon the social aspects of the problem as well as the main aspect which is the fire safety. Additionally, there will be a direct cooperation with Dr. Richard Walls from Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Generally speaking, the research project will focus on the informal settlements in Cape Town South Africa (which is known as fire capital of South Africa). Statistically speaking, in Cape Town only there was an informal settlements’ fire almost every day around the year, there are approximately 500 fatalities and more than 10 000 hospital appointments related to fires per year, which raises the importance to scientifically investigate the problem.

The informal settlements’ fire is one of the most complex fires to study; it is a very fertile place for large and lethal fires to spread. In this project, the team will be exploring and studying the phenomena that govern the spread of fires. The project should end up with some valuable data and founding to enhance our abilities to model and evaluate the fires in the informal settlements.

The team will also study the sociological changes needed to enhance the fire safety knowledge and culture to improve the settlements’ resistance to fires. Even though this project will be built up based on the case in Cape Town, however, it will be applicable to other cases around the globe.

All in all, the Improving Resilience for Informal Settlements – Fire (IRIS – fire) project will develop and innovative -up to date- experimental and modeling fire safety engineering tools, based on the data gathered from the informal settlements in Cape Town, in addition to satellite data. It should recommend some practical and effective clarification of the problem itself and create innovative plans to enhance the fire resilience of the informal settlements.

To get an idea about how the fires in the informal settlements looks like, you can check these videos:





Fire Investigations: The battle between science and myths

This blog post will be discussing the main myths and biases in the fire investigation. It will also give a brief historical timeline to the main publications and changes that happened to the fire investigation community. There will be a focus on the American fire investigation society.


The first goal of the fire investigation is usually to prove whether the fire was deliberate or not. Based on that, it is logic to start with defining the arson fire and what are its motivations. An arson fire is the willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn, with or without the intent to defraud. It requires intent to cause harm and the person setting the fire does it with criminal intent.There are different motivations behind setting these fires and it is better to be categorized and analysed so the size of the problem of arson fires will be well understood.

Pyromaniac: It is usually random with no conscious motivation, usually because of a psychological problem and not for material gain.
Revenge: Usually because of problems in controlling their anger, the reaction will be in an aggressive manner by setting fires. The targets usually have a personal connection to the fire setter, sometimes due to the influence of alcohol or drugs. It is often set in the bed room or closet to destroy personal possessions of extreme sentimental value. It is one of the most destructive fires and usually needs professional fire investigators to come up with evidence and analysis.
Arson for profit: least emotionally- or psychologically-motivated, very high level of fire damage but not personal. As there is no emotional component to these fires, the scenes will tend to be highly organized and rational.
Hero or vanity: Usually because of a psychological problem as the person seeks some attention and wants to play the hero role will set a fire. Sometimes the fire setter causes harm to others and sometimes he/she will try to put out the fire after igniting it.
Crime concealment: Usually there no previous interest of fire, the setter will use it to destroy physical evidence or divert attention from another crime. Fires usually are opportunistic and started with materials found at the scene.
Terrorist or social protest: Usually the work is done in groups, the methods and materials are more sophisticated, the fires are usually striking symbolic, political or economic targets.

Based on that, fire investigation is considered one of the most complicated and critical fields. To prove that a fire is arson or not, needs in-depth knowledge about the science of fires and research not just experience in fire investigation. Beside the knowledge and experience, the investigator also needs flexibility to change the commonly held beliefs and not just follow the old un-scientific and inaccurate generalizations.
By reading the history of fire investigation, it is clear that there were too many myths that were used for decades without any revision. It is understandable, why the fire investigators were opposing any change in their field`s (knowledge base or expertise) constraint as it means that their previous judgments were incorrect.
Unfortunately, the fire investigation leaders are the same people that write the text books and teach the new investigators in school. So, there is a continuous promulgation of these myths, only those who take updated courses or read more about fire science can break the cycle and be re-educated.

The myths are usually developed and exist without any scientific reason or evidence, it is more a result of inaccurate generalizations. As an example, if an investigator detects the presence of small fragments of crazing glass when an accelerator was used in a fire, the next time he/she observes small fragments of crazing glass he/she might conclude the presence of an accelerator, which may have nothing to do with accelerators. This example can show how critical is it not to base the analysis on generalized rules of thumb. Some of the highly respected fire researchers in NIST wrote about it in the (Fire Investigation Handbook) in 1980 and proposed that the size of glass crazing is highly useful to predict the origin of the fire. David R. Redsicker in his book (Practical Fire and Arson Investigation) proposed that when glass crazed into small segments or pieces, that it was subjected to rapid heating up and that the larger the pieces of the glass means the more distance it was from the fire source.

In 1977, the first step to be taken against these myths was done by the Aerospace Corporation with the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA) with the publication (Arson and Arson Investigation: Survey and Assessment). The authors of this publication started to point out the fact that most of the currently used fire accelerator indicators are not based on scientific testing. They also urge that an urgent scientific research plan should be set to scientifically prove these indicators, the LEAA text was based also on surveying the fire investigators about the most commonly held myths and the following list consists of the most contentious myths:

1. Alligatoring effect: It means that charring wood will look like alligator skin, the large blisters indicates rapid intense heat while the small flat blisters indicate long low heat.
2. Crazing of glass: It means the presence of irregular cracks in glass because of the rapid heating which usually was an indication of accelerators.

3. Depth of char: It means how deep the burning char from the surface of the wood was, it was used to indicate the burning time including the location where the fire originated.
4. Line of demarcation: it is a boundary line between the charred and uncharred material, the presence of puddle shapes usually indicates an accelerator and a distinct line indicates rapid burning.

5. Sagged furniture springs: usually high temperatures are needed to collapse the springs and also due to the insulation effect of upholstery, the sagged furniture springs usually indicate that the fire started inside the cushions or the use of accelerators.
6. Spalling: spalling means chipping or pitting of concrete or masonry surfaces, it requires intense heat so usually it is matched with the presence of accelerants especially in those cases were brown strains are also observed.
7. Fire Load: it was believed that the expected damage from (Normal) fire can be estimated from the energy content of the fuels presented in the building.
8. Low burning and holes in the floor: they believed that because usually the heating goes up, the presences of any holes on the floor or under furniture is a proof of the origin of the fire.
9. V-pattern angle: the presence of a narrow v-shape indicates a fast and hot burring fire.

10. Time and Temperature: It was believed that by calculating the expected time and temperature using the building dimensions and the fuel load, the investigator can expect whether or not there was a use of accelerants.

For the sake of completeness, I will give some details about one of these myths:

  • Alligatoring:

NIST [5] stated in its handbook in 1980 that, the char alligatoring can be used to indicate the acceleration of the fire. If the fire was slow, the alligatoring shape will be flat and if it is a rapid burning the alligatoring shape will be more like a hump.
In 1982, IFSTA (The International Fire Service Training Association) declared the same, it stated that large alligatoring is evidence of the presence of flammable and combustible liquids.


NFPA had a totally different opinion here, they criticized the way it was explained and how the investigators over-estimate the importance of the charing shape. The NFPA provided pictures of different shapes of alligatoring from the same fire and stated that there is no scientific proof that an accelerant was present during the fire if the hump alligatoring shape appeared in the scene of the fire. Also, there was no scientific evidence that the shininess or the colour of the char had anything to do with the presence of accelerants or the fire growth rate.

The impact of the NFPA report appeared to be positive in the publication of Practical fire and arson Investigation by O’Connor who published the first edition in 1986 and stated that the same explanation about the alligatoring and proposed the presence of accelerants when there are large rolling blisters, however, in 1997 it seems he was influenced by the NFPA report and mentioned in his second edition that there isn’t scientific evidence to prove what he mentioned about alligatoring in the first edition and advised that it should be used with extreme caution.

However, the myths did not disappear totally, Randall Noon in 1995 in his publication (Engineering Analysis of Fires and Explosion) not only included the myth about alligatoring in his publication, but also, he proposed a totally wrong explanation. Randall wrote that the (Scientific) explanation is that when the wood is exposed to heat, the water will be evaporated. If the water was rapidly evaporated there will be a rapid loss in the volume which will cause high tension in the wood surface and end up with bigger and deeper charring shapes.

This explanation is totally not based on any scientific experiments and should not be used as a reference by fire investigators . It is just a repetition of the myths with some non-scientific inclusions from the author.This can show how hard it is to change the perception of these myths and how some authors keep publishing these un-scientific rules and show it as if they could be taken for granted, not shouldering any responsibility or even advising that there is a need to be cautious in your interpretation of what you observe.

To summarize, the myths are diminishing and disappearing with time, however, disproving the myths is too slow compared to the work done disproving myths in other fields of science and also when you consider the effect these myths have on many innocent people.

Some references were used to write this blog:



Interview- Simon Santamaria

One more interview with one of the IMFSE alumni, Simon Santamaria!

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Can you introduce yourself?

Sure. My name is Simon, I’m 29 years old. I’m from Caracas, Venezuela. I am currently a PhD student working in the fire group at the School of Engineering at The University of Edinburgh. I completed the IMFSE in 2015 (green hoodie).

How did you know about the IMFSE?

I found out about it from the Erasmus Mundus website. At the time, I was looking for an opportunity to study a master in Europe and IMFSE caught my eye. I spent some time looking at the course description, the cities, universities and the impressions that past students had of the program. Every clue seemed to indicate this was the program to choose. I can happily say it was the right decision to make.

How did you spend the two years of the IMFSE program?

Big question. Happy. Busy. Challenged.
I spent my first and third semesters in Gent, the second semester in Lund and the fourth in Edinburgh.

How was the IMFSE experience?

Life changing. No doubt about it. So many things that feel natural in my life now are a direct consequence of taking part in this program. Working in an international group, living away from home and being connected to so many alumni spread around the world.
When I started in 2013, I remember the excitement and the expectations I had for the upcoming two years. So many things happened in that time. Friendships, challenges, surprises. The experience allowed me to set new goals for myself, to learn many things in many different aspects of life and in a sense, it gave me the opportunity to rediscover the person I wanted to be. In my opinion, the key aspect about IMFSE is that it lived up to my personal expectations of it. What I encountered (people, professors, cities, weather, food, parties, universities, courses, contacts) have since opened a breadth of opportunities that I couldn’t have foreseen
I can’t overstate how wonderful this experience is, how much it taught me and how much it means to me. I’ve been going over this question a lot since I find it hard to find the right words. It just, is, that amazing.

Did you have other options after graduating from the IMFSE, I mean other than doing the Ph.D.?

Yes. I applied to some companies and started with the recruitment process, but to be honest, once I was offered the Ph.D. opportunity my mind was made up (even if, at the time, I wasn’t completely conscious of that).

How was your experience as a TA for the IMFSE students?

It was, and still is, great. I love meeting the IMFSE groups and I always try to be as helpful as I can. IMFSE students tend to be very open and interested. They bring a freshness of expectations and are eager to try new things. I am looking forward to being a Teaching Assistant again this year in the fire courses.

What is the best thing you like about the program?

That is another hard question. The program is very well organized and structured, there is always a feeling that somebody has your back, and that is very important when you live away from home. The universities are great and the cities are amazing, each provides a unique experience.

The best thing though?

Probably the people. The friendships that you make along the way, the lessons that you are taught (some of them even include a bit of sweat and tears) and the joy that fills your body every single time you realize, during those two years, that you are indeed in the process of doing an Erasmus Mundus master.

Why do you think students prefer to apply to IMFSE than applying to other Fire Safety programs? What makes the IMFSE unique?

Because it is the best. All universities taking part excel in their own fields of expertise. The program’s international recognition increases every year. The environment to which students are exposed ensures that, as graduates, they are prepared to deal with the challenges in our profession; and in my opinion, this rests on two main pillars: the internationality of the program (students, professors, universities) and the teaching philosophy. At the end, the best ambassadors for the program are all the alumni who work hard to have a positive impact in this field.


Do you have any advice to the new students joining the IMFSE?

Wear sunscreen. Other than that:

The experience can be demanding, intense and very challenging. My best advice is to keep an open mind. Trust in your instincts and in people. Study hard but remember that half the lessons will come from those around you. Study the history of the cities you will live in, it will make you appreciate them much more. Roam the cities alone. Save money, but be careful with what you eat, a two euros lasagna is not a sustainable way of feeding yourself. Buying a used bike will always be a good investment, as long as you remember to sell it later. Take plenty of pictures, but don’t spend too much time looking at them, there will be time for that later. Use student discounts, many places have them but don’t necessarily advertise them.

Time flies, so enjoy everything that IMFSE has to offer. Travel when you can, or maybe as much as you can. Immerse yourself in the culture of the country that is hosting you. Drink beer in Belgium and make beer in Lund. Travel to the highlands. See the northern lights.

What do you do to welcome the new IMFSE students to Edinburgh and what is your experience regarding that?

That is actually an important question for our group now. The philosophy in the fire group has always been to welcome all new students and to try to help them benefit from everything the group has to offer. We realize though, that it can be a bit intimidating. It’s a big group and everybody seems to know each other already. For that reason, this year we have decided to organize social activities specifically targeted at welcoming the new master students (there are two other groups studying structural and fire safety engineering at a Master’s level in Edinburgh: MSc and MEng).

We truly hope that this year’s new IMFSE students feel welcomed and take part in as many activities as they can.


One more time Thanks Simon for your time and wish you all the best in your research!

Graduation Cermoney 2017 [II]

To continue my last post, after handing the final transcripts and the poster awards, Prof. Grunde (representing the University of Edinburgh) and Dr. Juan (representing the University of Queensland) gave their speeches. I would like to comment on these two speeches, both were too enthusiastic and as a graduate, I don’t think there could be a better speech to attend on that day.  For example, prof. Grunde’s speech was really clear and to the point, he discussed all the challenges that could face us as fresh graduates, he encouraged us to do our best and work as hard as possible but at the same time never tolerate pressure from any one to reach perfection. This sounds like a simple advice, however, it has a much deeper meaning that we all going to face sooner or later in our careers as professional engineers.

After that, Matthias gave the IMFSE’s alumni talk, it was essential to hear from a last year graduate during our graduation day. Matthias gave a successful speech and covered a lot of our worries regarding switching from students’ life to the professionals’ one.


Later, the time came for the two years memories’ video. This video was done by Andres as one of the students’ representatives. Andres collected tens of pictures from each of us and started to filter and choose those which can be presented to the public….ethically speaking :)). Honestly, this video surprised me. Personally, I did not realize that we have shared all these moments in less than two years until I watched the video. I can definitely say, these two years went like a blink of an eye. [A quick advice for the current and upcoming IMFSE generations, take as many pictures and videos as you can, you will never regret filling up your memory cards during the two years to fill up your own memories for ever later!]


After the video, Bart gave the final speech and invited everyone to building ‘s garden for the picture moment. Without writing or commenting here I will leave you with this nice slide show for the photos’ session.

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By the end of the photos’ session, the afternoon programme also came to an end. Now, it is time for the evening programme.

The evening programme:

The evening programme started around 6:00 pm with a boat trip. This was too unique to have all your class mates, teachers, families, and friends on one small boat in the nice canals of Ghent and with a great sunny Ghentian weather. We felt really special!

Once we were done with the boat trip, we took a quick casual walk to a small restaurant in Ghent city center.

The whole place was booked only for us from 7:00 pm to 12:00 am. We had a nice international cuisine, thanks to the organizers, all the different diets were taken into consideration.


After having some food and long chats, it was show time. Thanks to Elise and her awesome band, we had great time listing to them. Also thanks to Habib who did the great Gangnam style dance. Elise, you are really talented! Habib you are Unexpected :D.

By the end of the band show and Habib’s show, we were done with our graduation day. We had to say some hard goodbyes (to those who had to leave with their family members) and promise to meet again whenever we had any chance to do so. Of course, some of us were able to stay for the whole night so we kept chatting, chatting and chatting all the night till early morning hours near St Bavo’s Cathedral, which used to be our favorite place to meet.

All in all, it is essential to thank Lies, Elise, Dave, Bart, Monica, Mathieu, Christian, Habib and Eduardo for all the help and efforts they did to organize our graduation day. You guys made it unforgettable. Thank you on behalf of all my class mates.

Graduation Cermoney 2017 [I]


On the 26th of June this summer, we the 2015 chorot had our official graduation ceremony. As everything else in the IMFSE program, the graduation ceremony is really special. The awesome IMFSE secretary (Lies and Elise) prepared for that day almost three months ahead. As Ghent University is the organizer of the IMFSE, the graduation ceremony used to be held there every year.

The day is usually divided into two parts an afternoon and evening sessions. The afternoon session is for the official ceremony and speeches, while the evening one contains dinner and a casual trip around the city.

The Afternoon programme:

Started with us –the students- gathering at Het Band around 11:30 am for the student interviews, during these interviews we were asked some questions regarding our experience during the program, our future plans and how it feels like to be graduating. Our students’ interviews video is not online yet, but, you can have a look on those for the previous years through this link

Afterwards, the registration started at 1:00 pm with a coffee break where we were able to meet with each other after the thesis semester and recall our two years memories, not only that but also we met with each other’s family members.


At 1:30 pm the opening talks started with a welcome speech by professor Bart Merci, he welcomed the family members, Jury members and congratulated the students for their efforts during the last two years, followed by a quick talk by Prof. Patrick Van Hees from Lund University. Afterward, prof. Bart asked the students to start presenting their thesis with a time frame of around 3-5 mins each.



At 1:45 the students started to present their thesis, you can easily notice how much efforts were exerted in the work and you can even easier notice the gorgeous view of the proud family members filming and taking pictures with too much glory.


Bart then thanked the IMFSE sponsors and asked the audience to move to the poster session.


The IMFSE students prepared beforehand A3 posters for their thesis work, during the poster session the family members and the jury members had to vote for the best posters, then each poster will get points and Bart will announce the winners.


After the poster session, the perspective moment came, we started to wear the gowns and prepare ourselves to hear the final results. Bart announced the names of the successful students and gave them their final transcript. At the same moment, Elise was counting the points for the best poster award and reported the winners to Bart.


Now, Bart started to announce the names in the order of the overall score and each student will stand to get his/her transcript and a picture with Bart.



Right after that, Bart handed the best poster awards:


To be continued in the next blog post Graduation Ceremony 2017 [II].