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MELBOURNE, Australia-Old, wooden homes built close to shoe-manufacturing factories were a major cause of the devastating fires that followed Japan's 1995 Kobe earthquake, fire safety experts told an international conference last month.

More than 6,000 people died in the quake, many of them burned to death in fires that swept through the city in the days after the temblor.

Ai Sekizawa, from the National Research Institute of Fire & Disaster, Ministry of Home Affairs, Tokyo, said that many fires that followed the Jan. 17, 1995, earthquake were in the Nagata ward in Kobe city (BI, Jan. 23, 1995), where traditional, wooden homes were situated near factories.

There was very little room between the houses and other buildings, Mr. Sekizawa said during his presentation at the 5th International Symposium on Fire Safety Science, held March 3-7 at the World Congress Center in Melbourne, Australia.

Eleven large fires burned more than 12,000 square yards in Nagata ward after the quake, which measured 7.2 on the Richter scale and resulted in an estimated $2.5 billion in insured losses.

A "critical lack of fire engines" was another contributing factor to the seriousness of the fires, Mr. Sekizawa said.

Mr. Sekizawa, comparing data from the Northridge and Kobe quakes, said building materials and the width of streets were "significant reasons" why fires occurred throughout Kobe but only occurred in mobile home parks after Northridge. The Northridge earthquake, which occurred exactly one year earlier, measured 6.6 on the Richter scale and resulted in $12.5 billion in insured losses.

At Kobe, 87 fires had started within four hours of the quake. Structural damage that exposed gas pipes and electrical wires also was a major cause of ignition, Mr. Sekizawa noted.

Akihiko Hokugo, from Japan's Building Research Institute, Ministry of Construction, at Tsukuba, said more than 200 fires had occurred by three days after the quake. The spread of the fires would have been worse if winds had been stronger, he said.

Fires spread through the openings of wooden buildings rather than through their walls. Wide streets, parks, railways and rows of buildings of fireproof construction outside the Nagata ward were factors that stopped the fires spreading even further. Mr. Hokugo noted.

"It is extremely important to provide more space between buildings and improve buildings' fireproof performance to stop the spread of fires following earthquakes," he recommended.

Mr. Hokugo said damage occurred even in buildings in which wooden walls and beams were covered in non-combustible materials because quake damage exposed the combustible timbers.

He agreed that in the Nagata ward, the proximity of small shoe factories containing "synthetic rubber" and other combustible materials contributed to the fires. Burning buildings collapsing into the streets also were a factor in spreading the blazes.

Mr. Hokugo called for improved urban design, including "systematic reconstruction of buildings in areas with high concentrations of decrepit wooden dwellings."

Shinichi Sugahara, a professor from the Department of Architecture, Faculty of Engineering, at the University of Tokyo, told the conference his research showed traditional Japanese roof tiles, called kawara, contributed to the collapse of many traditional homes because they are very heavy.

Mr. Sugahara said water for firefighting was in short supply because many hydrants were damaged. Buildings were saved in areas where sea water or river water could be pumped to fight fires.

Mr. Sugahara agreed that inner-city areas housing traditional dwellings and shoe factories should be remodeled "as one of the urgent considerations."

He also said open spaces should be incorporated to act as fire barriers.

Flexible gas piping would be less susceptible to damage during a quake, he said.