Flammable cladding blamed for the rapid spread of the fatal Grenfell Tower blazewas pinpointed as contributing to another fire in a high-rise apartment building in Melbourne, which narrowly avoided loss of life.
A fire at the Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands on 25 November 2014 is strikingly similar to London’s Grenfell Tower fire, which has left at least 17 people dead and many more injured.
The rapid spread of the Lacrosse building fire, which was sparked by a cigarette on an eighth-floor balcony and raced up 13 floors to the roof of the 21-storey building in 11 minutes, was blamed on flammable aluminium composite cladding that lined the exterior concrete walls.
Aluminium composite panels have a polyethylene or plastic core and an aluminium coating. It is a cheap building material widely used worldwide to clad high-rise apartment buildings.
There have been reports of fires involving aluminium cladding in residential towers in France, the United Arab Emirates, South Korea and the US.
In a report into the investigation of the Lacrosse fire, the Melbourne metropolitan fire brigade said the rapid vertical spread of the fire was “directly associated” with the external cladding.
“Had the external wall cladding been of a non-combustible type, the likelihood of fire spread beyond the level of ignition would have been greatly reduced,” it said.
David Youssef, the deputy chief fire officer for the MFB, said at the time: “Those of us that have been around for 30 years or more have never seen a fire develop in this way.
“We never expected to see a high-rise fire, particularly one in a new building, that would spread so quickly from the eighth floor to the 21st floor.”
Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, conducted tests on the cladding and found it was combustible and did not meet building codes.
Initial reports from the Grenfell fire suggest the gap between the cladding and the external walls of the building acted as a chimney, funnelling flames up the side of the building.
“[A fire] doesn’t travel up concrete, does it, so it’s got to have travelled up something and the cladding was there so prima facie the cladding has been the cause of the fire spreading up the external parts of the building,” fire safety expertGraham Fieldhouse said.
The Lacrosse fire prompted the Victorian Building Authority (VBA) to audit the cladding used on high-rise buildings in Melbourne, which prompted an update to the national building codes.
The use of dangerous building materials is also being examined by an Australian Senate committee, headed by senator Nick Xenophon.
“The evidence we heard at the inquiry from the Metropolitan fire brigade was chilling and disturbing,” Xenophon said on Thursday. “If our firefighters are saying that their jobs are being made extremely difficult from this inflammable cladding, we need to act with urgency.
“The fact that these products could still be on Australian buildings indicates the need for an urgent audit of all buildings and to look at how this cladding comes into the country in the first place.
Xenophon said the Grenfell Tower tragedy was a “serious wake-up call” to tighten compliance regimes around building materials.