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How to minimise the risk of balcony fires

At a glance

  • Almost £9m worth of damage was caused last year by just four balcony blazes
  • Zurich’s data reveals that the insurer paid out over £210m for fire damage in 2019, an increase of 48% since 2018
  • With the UK summer underway, it's important that people exercise caution when having barbecues, especially for those taking place on balconies.

With the UK summer underway and Coronavirus restrictions easing, it’s important that people exercise caution when having barbecues, especially for those taking place on balconies.

Balconies provide an invaluable outdoor space and an ideal place for socialising for many flat owners and occupiers. However, they also bring risks associated with discarded cigarettes and the use of barbecues and heaters. Such risks mean that property owners and landlords should consider reminding tenants of the wide variety of perils they could be exposing themselves to.

Zurich paid out over £210m in fire damage claims in 2019, with £9m of damage being done by just four balcony fires. With over nine million people in the UK living in flats and over 500 balcony fires in London alone since 2017, balcony fires are a significant and dangerous risk for many.

David Nichols, Chief Claims Officer at Zurich, said: “Fires not only put people’s lives at risk, they also destroy homes and irreplaceable personal possessions. The £210m which Zurich paid out for fire damage to properties last year doesn’t include the emotional turmoil and disruption these events cause.

“This is why we urge people to think twice and avoid using BBQs or smoking on their balconies. Just a small ignition source, or persistent heat over a period of time can start a fire. This can happen hours after the residents have gone to bed. What’s more worrying is the number of companies marketing barbecues which claim to be specifically designed for balconies. In our view these products should be banned as there is no such thing as a safe balcony barbecue.”

For brokers, it is key that you educate your customers, both those who live in high rise buildings and those who rent out similar accommodation, on the risks of balcony fires and the significant damage they can cause not only to their own space but to those around them.

Key Risks

Paul Redington – Regional Property Major Loss Manager at Zurich Insurance

Recent fires in high rise buildings and flats have demonstrated the potential hazards of the likes of carelessly discarded smoking materials setting fire to items on the ground, or to balconies below. Falling embers from barbeques represent a similar hazard.

The risks are compounded by the fact that barbeques are often left unattended, and that wind speeds are stronger at a greater height. Wind patterns can be less predictable due to the proximity of neighbouring buildings. The confined layout of balconies can also affect ease of escape for building occupants.

Any risk is greatly heightened where balconies and facades are constructed with combustible materials and insulation. The Government issued a guidance note for owners of residential buildings which, in short, advises that ‘the removal and replacement of any combustible material used in balcony construction is the clearest way to prevent external fire spread from balconies’.

The guidance note states that ‘Where there is doubt over the materials used, or risk presented, building owners should seek professional advice from an appropriately qualified and competent professional (i.e. a fire engineer or construction professional with significant knowledge and experience of fire safety)’.

Modern Methods of Construction

Allison Whittington – Head of Housing at Zurich Municipal

The risks associated with the use of combustible cladding and building materials, as well as the use of timber for construction and façade of balconies and wider parts of the building, which are very common modern construction techniques, can be crucial factors and allow fire to spread quickly through a property.

Timber-framed structures are susceptible to a variety of ignition sources, including radiation from other fires. At Zurich, our experience has shown that when a timber-framed building ignites, it can result in more serious and more widespread damage.

Therefore, fire resistance must be considered when using modern construction methods. This includes weighing up the combined properties of materials, with a need for joined-up thinking throughout design, build and maintenance, to ensure risks are recognised and addressed appropriately – not just in construction but also the inhabitation phase of a building’s lifecycle.

Zurich, together with the Association of British Insurers, have recently called for a publicly accessible register of construction types and materials used. The debate will undoubtedly continue.


Zurich’s balcony safety tips:

  1. Don’t use BBQs, of any kind, on your balcony. They stay hot for several hours and can start a fire long after you stop watching them.
  2. Remember, embers carry in high winds for up to one mile and could set fire to your neighbours’ balcony, another property or local woodland.
  3. Avoid smoking on your balcony and always ensure cigarettes are properly put out. Never throw cigarette butts over the balcony as you can set neighbours’ balcony on fire.
  4. Ensure the doorway and pathways on your balcony are always clear and clutter free.
  5. Do not store any flammable items on your balcony.
  6. Always have a working and safe to use fire extinguisher in your home, in case the unfortunate happens.


Zurich calls for Government intervention

The warning comes as part of Zurich’s wider fire prevention strategy. The insurer has played an active role in ‘The Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety’ announced by Dame Judith Hackett following the Grenfell Tower tragedy. It has also repeatedly warned the Government that the regulatory system covering high-rise and complex buildings is not fit for purpose and has called for a radical rethink of the whole system and how it works. This includes;

  • Extending the combustible cladding ban to the entire external height of all residential and non-residential buildings,
  • Introducing a property-safety building regulatory baseline to ensure that residents can not only escape but also have a home to return to
  • Introducing a publicly available property database to ensure that property owners, the wider public, and Fire & Rescue Services understand how a property was constructed.
  • Zurich echoes warnings by the London Fire Brigade and other Fire & Safety Rescue Services of the dangers of balcony barbeques which are being marketed carelessly, with a complete disregard as to how dangerous they can be. It is engaging Parliament on the dangers of balcony BBQs and the risks they pose, particularly in developments constructed using modern methods of construction.
Image © Getty

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