The New Year’s Eve fire at The Address Downtown in Dubai shocked onlookers from around the world — an entire 63-story skyscraper engulfed in flame while a holiday fireworks display took place nearby. But what’s really frightening about the fire is the fact that it’s not an isolated occurrence. In fact, it’s the eighth such fire to strike the United Arab Emirates in the past two decades, and experts say it’s not likely to be the last.
The reason for these fast-spreading fires is the type of external paneling used in their construction — a material called aluminum composite panel cladding. While the front and back of the panels is aluminum, the interior is made of a highly flammable polyethylene foam core. For years, developers favored the material due to its low cost, gleaming finish, and resistance to dust. In 2012, Dubai and other cities in the UAE banned the material in new construction — the problem is that buildings already using the panels weren’t required to retrofit to meet the new fire standards.
No one is exactly sure how many buildings contain the flammable panels (there are apparently no official records on the subject), but local experts suggest it could be up to 70 of the towers currently standing in Dubai. In the wake of the Address fire, the UAE has ordered a nationwide survey to determine just how many buildings are at risk.
Unfortunately, this isn’t a problem unique to the UAE. Fast-spreading high-rise fires due to combustible cladding have also struck Shanghai, Azerbaijan’s capitol of Baku, Beijing, and even Melbourne, Australia.