Global Network of National Geoparks

Geopark Response to the Itoigawa Station North Fire of December 2016

Source :Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark, Japan Published :April 14, 2017

At about 10:20 a.m. on Thursday, December 22nd, 2016, a fire broke out in historic Downtown Itoigawa, part of the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark’s Itoigawa Coast Geosite. The fire, which started in the kitchen of a ramen noodle restaurant, spread quickly through the area, known for its densely packed old wooden buildings. Although 12 emergency response units were called to the blaze, exceptionally strong southerly winds recorded up to 27.2m/s caused the fire to leap from building to building, soon overwhelming the local fire departments and expanding to become the worst fire to strike Itoigawa since 1954. Continuing its mission of disaster readiness and prevention, the Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark has performed an investigation into the cause of the fire and the conditions which caused it to spread so quickly.


Location of Itoigawa between the Hida Mountains and the Sea of Japan 


Itoigawa’s location, sandwiched between the Sea of Japan and two large mountain ranges, produces extreme weather effects. Of particular interest with regard to this fire is the regional wind known as the Renge-oroshi. This phenomenon is created by Foehn winds blowing from the Hida and Kubiki Mountains. These winds funnel into the Himekawa Gorge, a lowland belt which runs along the Itoigawa-Shizuoka Tectonic Line, and can be extremely strong. The name Renge-oroshi comes from the Renge region, which lies in the Hida Mountains at the southern border of Itoigawa.



Weather patterns at the time of fire 


When the fire broke out in the morning of December 22nd, an area of low atmospheric pressure was passing east through the Sea of Japan between warm and cold fronts. This created the perfect conditions for the Renge-oroshi.


Damage & Timeline of the Fire 


The high speed winds not only caused the fire to spread quickly, but also caused the flames to jump unpredictably from building to building. What was originally one contained fire soon became many separate fires, complicating the efforts of the local and regional fire brigades. The fire was not brought under control until 8:00 p.m., nearly 10 hours after the start of the fire. By the time the fire was completely extinguished, over 140 buildings were either completely destroyed or damaged, including several historical buildings, including the oldest sake brewery in Niigata Prefecture and a 200 year old restaurant once visited by Emperor Meiji during his reign. Thankfully, due to the fast evacuation response of the citizens and the efforts of the responding rescue teams, there were no deaths and only minor injuries.


Overview of Damage (Numbers Correspond to Map Above) 


During the following government inspection, Itoigawa Geopark staff explained the natural phenomena that caused the fire to become as strong as it did. Because of this, despite the fact that the fire started as the result of human error, the Japanese Government decided to declare the fire a natural wind-related disaster, rather than an anthropogenic one. This is an important distinction in Japan because victims of officially designated natural disasters are eligible for special financial assistance and other services which are generally not otherwise available. This is the first time a fire of this type has been recognized as a natural disaster.

The Itoigawa UNESCO Global Geopark also has provided support through its Geopark Guides and the Fossa Magna Museum. They are currently working to survey the region, collecting the accounts of the people who were closest to the fire when it began, in order to gain a better understanding of how the fire progressed and how similar fires might be prevented in the future. This data will prove valuable as the city works on a unified plan for rebuilding the affected area.

The Geopark is also working in the recovery efforts. Many of the buildings lost were local businesses including restaurants and bars. Many of these businesses rely on tourism, so the Itoigawa Geopark is working with the city to promote tourism, despite the damage. The affected area lies within the Geopark’s Itoigawa Coast Geosite and it’s important that visitors know that, despite the widely reported fire, the area is still vibrant and attractive. Many affected businesses are beginning to reopen in temporary locations as the rebuilding continues and they need the support of not only the local community, but from visitors as well.