Curved windows magnifying sunlight spark high-rise fire in Vancouver, fire department says

·3-min read

A Vancouver highrise fire ignited when sunlight was magnified by a curved wall of windows, according to a city official.

The fire started last Tuesday on the roof of a the M2@Main Alley building on Quebec Street and Fourth Avenue, a new commercial property currently under construction which is slated to open later this summer.

It spread from the eighth floor to the interior of the structure. No one was injured and the blaze was quickly extinguished.

Trevor Connelly, assistant chief of operations for Vancouver Fire Rescue Services, tweeted: “Last week VFRS responded to a 2nd alarm. Heavy black smoke/flames in foam insulation on the roof. Fire entered the building 8th floor. Hard work/quick action put the fire out quickly. Cause of the fire was magnification of sunlight by a concave shaped wall of windows.”

The tweet included an alarming photo of the damage but Mr Connelly told The Independent that, while rare, these incidents to occur.

“As more and more of these high rises go up with glass fronts, we want people to be aware ... The sun gets magnified passing through a piece of glass, but we don’t find it happening in flat glass,” he said. “It’s the curved nature of glass that creates the magnifying effect.”

He added: “We’ve all been on the inside of a flat plece of glass; even on a winter’s day, you can feel the sun rays are increased ... that’s how a greenhouse works for growing crops. But with flat glass, I haven’t seen where a flat piece of glass would increase it to that temperature.

“If you look at that picture from the fire, you can see that wall is curved - it’s a concave-shaped wall. All the cases I’ve experienced in my career, which is maybe half a dozen, it’s all involved some sort of curved glass.”

Vancouver has been experiencing exceptionally high temperatures that have reached tens of degrees warmer than usual - but, while such magnification-caused fires are more likely to happen in the summer than the winter, when the sun is lower in the sky, Mr Connelly reiterated that design, not weather, tends to be the biggest factor in such blazes.

And sunlight sparking apartment fires due to curved windows or glass is not unheard of. In 2014, the 20 Fenchurch skyscraper in London – also known as the Walkie-Talkie tower – magnified light so strongly that it ended up melting nearby cars and shops.

One unfortunate Jaguar owner, Martin Lindsay, told the BBC at the time that his car was “absolutely ruined.”

“You can’t believe something like this would happen,” he said.

While many like Mr Lindsay might seem incredulous – and Mr Connelly emphasised such instances were “rare” – the combination of sunlight and windows or mirrors is more combustible and treacherous than people may think.

In 2019, household and design guru Martha Stewart warned fans online that her home had endured a near-miss while she was on a trip abroad.

“A magnifying makeup mirror, sitting on the back of the toilet, happened to catch the rays [of] the afternoon sun, reflecting them directly onto the painted window sill,” she posted online “The light was so intense that the paint scorched and smoked [and] almost ignited!”

Alex Jones, a home insurance expert at Zurich insurance, told website lovePROPERTY in 2017 that people should “avoid placing glass objects, especially glasses or ornaments, in direct sunlight a they can magnify the sun’s rays and burn soft furnishings.

He added: “It might be a pain, but if you’re out for the day, draw curtains or close blinds to limit sunlight beaming in.”

Mr Connelly told The Independent: “These events are, as I say, rare, although they do happen - and this is one of the reasons we wanted to get it out there. It’s an awareness piece for people. It’s something people don’t think of.”

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