Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The House that Kanazawa Built

The house that survived Niigata inferno with barely a scratch

The Asahi Shimbun by TATSUO KAWAHATA/ Staff Writer  December 28, 2016

Takao Kanazawa's house, center, survived the Dec. 22 inferno in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture, with barely a scratch. This is how it looked on Dec. 23. (Eiji Hori)

ITOIGAWA, Niigata Prefecture--With flames racing through the neighborhood and destroying everything in their path, Takao Kanazawa was sure his house would soon be rendered a smoldering ruin.

It was Dec. 22. A fire that started in a ramen shop became a raging inferno and destroyed much of the downtown area of Itoigawa, gutting 120 homes and commercial properties and leaving 24 others damaged. The blaze, fanned by strong coastal winds, took 30 hours to extinguish.

"I didn't hang around, thinking it was all over with the entire area engulfed in a sea of flames," Kanazawa recalled.

The 35-year-old office worker said he was at work when he learned of the emerging disaster via the city government’s emergency e-mail service.

He rushed home praying for a miracle, and to help his neighbors battle the blaze, which grew more fierce with the strong wind gusts.

Houses burn in a major fire in Itoigawa in Niigata Prefecture on Thursday.  KYODO

It wasn't long before the flames were closing in on his house. Fearing that it, too, would catch alight, Kanazawa decided it was no time for heroics and fled the scene.

So, imagine his astonishment when he returned to the neighborhood once the flames had been extinguished to find his house still standing.

While much of the area had been reduced to piles of rubble and ash, the only damage to his home were minor scorch marks, cracked windowpanes and a melted outdoor air-conditioning unit.

But it was not merely a matter of luck.

Kanazawa, chastened by the Niigata Chuetsu-oki Earthquake that devastated the prefecture in summer 2007, had built a sturdy home. He commissioned a local architect to erect a two-story Western-style house with 250 square meters of floor space. It was completed in the following spring.

The house itself was supported by a wooden frame, but the outer walls were made of brick with stainless steel supports, which are fire-resistant. Likewise, the roof comprised the stainless alloy and Western-style tiles. The windows used double-pane glass reinforced with steel wires.

Firefighters and police officers on Friday investigate the site where a major fire broke out the previous day in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture. KYODO

While the house cost about 50 percent more to build than regular structures of the same scale, the features that Kanazawa had incorporated made all the difference in the latest disaster.

It all paid off as he said, "It turned out the house could also withstand fire."

Kanazawa was also helped by the fact that there were empty lots, including spaces for parked cars, which acted as fire walls around his house.

Kanazawa and his family have returned to their home.

Takao Kanazawa's house survived the massive fire in Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture, on Dec. 22. (Tatsuo Kawahata)

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