Only you can prevent lab fires
Devastating blaze in UC Santa Cruz research facility underscores importance of fire-safety measures

By. D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs


fire damage

The charred remains of a UC Santa Cruz lab gutted by fire in January.

20 March 2002 | In the early morning hours of Jan. 11, fire broke out in a UC Santa Cruz science building. It took nearly five hours, 60 firefighters and 5,000 gallons of water to quell the blaze. When the smoke cleared, two labs had been completely destroyed — along with years of genetic research — and the building suffered major damage. Initial estimates put the damage at $5 million.

Though the cause is still unknown (arson has been ruled out), the fire appears to have started on a lab bench. According to UC Santa Cruz Fire Chief Charles Hernandez, possible culprits include a hot plate that was left on or malfunctioned or flammable liquid that was discarded improperly.

“The damage caused by this fire underscores the importance of taking measures to reduce the risk of laboratory fires,” says Mark Freiberg, the new director of Berkeley’s Environment, Health and Safety unit. “Besides the risk to life, the impact on research is so devastating — with the loss of experiments, documentation, equipment and time — that researchers should do whatever they can to prevent fires.”

Campus personnel can greatly reduce the chance of such accidental blazes by following fire-safety guidelines. For laboratories, these include:

Chemicals: Store solvents in flammable-liquid storage cabinets. Don’t stockpile chemicals; keep on hand only what is necessary for current research.

Keep accurate chemical inventories and send copies to EH&S. Should a fire break out, this information can greatly assist firefighters and safety personnel.

Whenever possible, use non-combustible alternatives to flammable chemicals. For example, soap and water, instead of solvents, can sometimes be used for cleaning.

Don’t attempt to discard flammable liquids yourself. Contact EH&S to pick up unwanted chemicals.

Equipment: Limit and supervise the use of Bunsen burners and other sources of open flames.

Keep electrical devices — such as hot plates, stir bars and heating mantels — in good repair. Frayed cords or shorts can cause sparks.

Do not use extension cords in place of permanent wiring. If there aren’t enough outlets in your lab, place a work order with Physical Plant–Campus Services to have them installed.

People: Don’t do high-hazard work alone, and don’t work when fatigued.

Keep copies of research documents and data in a remote location. This will assist in recovery of research should a fire occur.

Don’t let easily ignitable materials such as books, notebooks and papers pile up in labs.

Contact EH&S for fire-extinguisher training.

Buildings: Keep corridors free of obstructions to allow easy evacuation of occupants and access for firefighters and paramedics.

Make sure your building’s emergency plan is current. Each occupant should receive documented training on implementing the plan.

In case of fire: Should a fire break out, says Deputy Fire Marshall Jack Jaeger, evacuate the lab and close the door. Next, pull the fire alarm, call 911 and exit the building in a calm, orderly fashion.

Those with current fire-extinguisher training may attempt to extinguish a small fire, but only after the alarm is pulled.
“No one on campus is required to try to put out a fire,” said Jaeger. “We’d rather have people be safe than try to be a hero.”

EH&S is developing a slide show on the UC Santa Cruz fire. To arrange to see this presentation, contact EH&S at 642-3073. Visit for additional information on fire safety and prevention.


Home | Search | Archive | About | Contact | More News

Copyright 2002, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.

Comments? E-mail