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Are Finland's wooden old towns safe from fire?

A fire that destroyed part of a historic Norwegian wooden village in a UNESCO World Heritage Site has raised concerns over how well Finland’s oldest wooden buildings are protected.

Palava Porvoon tuomiokirkko
In 2008, Porvoo's fifteenth-century cathedral was badly damaged by arson. Image: Yle

The director of the National Board of Antiquities, Juhani Kostet, says Finland’s most valuable wooden house districts are in the west coast towns of Rauma, Kristinestad and Naantali, as well as Porvoo in the south-east. He says these old-town areas are well equipped with fire alarm systems.

“Usually these alarms immediately alert fire departments, so help can arrive quickly,” he told Yle on Sunday.

Kostet notes that in some historic sites, non-flammable materials have been added between the floors of wooden buildings. He says that fire safety authorities are involved in such planning.

“Whether these measures are sufficient is a good question, though,” says Kostet. In 2008, Porvoo's fifteenth-century Lutheran Cathedral was badly damaged by arson.

Lessons from the Great Fire

Densely-constructed housing stock has long posed a fire danger in old cities, notes Kostet. In Finland, he says, it was not until after the Great Fire of Turku in 1827 that buildings began to be placed further apart from each other and attention paid to the flammability of construction materials. While the Great Fire only killed 27 people, it left some 11,000 homeless.

Before that, the main strategy for preventing disastrous fires was simply keeping an eye out for them from observation towers, for instance.

“But that didn’t help once a big fire broke out,” says Kostet. "Extinguishing a fire was extremely difficult. Water supplies could be far away and they did not have proper fire-fighting equipment such as fire hoses."

In Norway, some 90 people were hospitalised this weekend as a large fire blazed through a historic village famous for its centuries-old wooden houses. The fire started on Saturday night in Lærdal, 300 kilometres from the capital, Oslo.

At least 30 buildings have been destroyed, including community centres and homes – a few of them in the protected village of Lærdalsøyri. Hundreds of people were evacuated.

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