Fatal Fire May Lead to Amendments on Housing Regulations

Bræðaborgarstígur fire

The Minister of Infrastructure has drafted an amendment to fire safety regulations in Iceland. The changes are meant to ensure more people have their actual residence registered correctly and make it easier for authorities to enter housing where fire prevention measures may be inadequate.

In June 2020, a fire at Bræðraborgarstígur 1 in Reykajvík claimed three lives, the deadliest fire in Iceland’s recent history. The house had previously been the subject of media attention for its unsafe living conditions. It was owned by an Icelandic company that rented the rooms mostly to migrant workers. There were reports that 73 people were registered as living in the house (though the actual number was lower).

Read More: House Fire Deaths Spark Calls for Fire Safety Reforms

The tragic fire spurred an official investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that in 2021, between 5,000 and 7,000 people in the country were living in properties that had been classified as commercial or industrial buildings and not residential buildings. Fire safety requirements differ between residential, commercial, and industrial housing and those living in non-residential buildings are often not sufficiently protected from the risk of fire. In many cases, the unregistered and inadequate housing is provided to temporary workers by their employer, also putting workers at risk of homelessness if they lose their job.

Under current Icelandic legislation, it is illegal to register one’s residence on commercial or industrial premises except in exceptional cases. This means there is no official information on exactly how many people live in such housing and where, which can create danger in the event of natural disasters and complicate the work of first responders. Icelandic law also does not put a limit on the number of people that can be registered at each residence, which is why 73 people were allegedly registered at Bræðraborgarstígur 1, despite fewer actually living there.

Proposed changes to increase safety

The proposed amendments would make it possible to limit the number of people who register their primary address in each home. They would also permit people to temporarily register their home address in commercial or industrial buildings as well as loosen the requirements for housing benefits to encourage people to correctly register their home address. It would also ensure that authorities had the legal authority to access housing where fire safety was inadequate. Current law permits firefighters to inspect commercial and industrial housing to ensure fire safety measures are in place, but not private homes.

2-3 Times More Powerful than 2021 Eruption

iceland volcano 2023

The ongoing eruption on Iceland’s Reykjanes peninsula is about 2-3 times more powerful than the 2021 eruption at the same site, according to the latest data from the University of Iceland’s Institute of Earth Sciences. In its first week, the eruption has covered an area of nearly one square kilometre with fresh lava and it shows no signs of stopping. This is the third eruption at the same site in three years, following some 800 years with no eruptions in the area.

Fresh lava over 20 metres thick

The eruption’s lava flow between July 13-17 averaged 13 cubic metres per second, slightly lower than the lava flow of 14.5 cubic metres per second between July 11-13, but due to the margin of error in measurements, researchers say the difference is not significant. The surface area of the new lava was 0.83 square kilometres [0.32 sq mi] as of yesterday, and its volume was 8.4 million cubic metres. The edge of the lava advances 300-400 metres [980-1,300 ft] daily with the distance being highly variable from day to day. The lava is around 10 metres thick on average but over 20 metres at its thickest.

All of these figures are quite similar to last year’s eruption in Meradalir but 2-3 times higher than the figures of the Geldingadalir eruption in 2021. The 2021 Geldingadalir Eruption was significantly smaller, but lasted around six months, while the 2022 Meradalir eruption lasted less than three weeks. So far, the current eruption is not threatening inhabited areas or infrastructure, though pollution from its gases as well as from wildfires set off by the lava are a significant risk for people at the site as well as further off.

Iceland Review has a handy guide on accessing the eruption site.

How do I access the 2023 Reykjanes eruption?

reykjanes eruption 2023

An eruption began on the Reykjanes peninsula at 4:40 PM on July 10, 2023. It is the third eruption in three years at the site. The eruption area has been opened to visitors and below is all the necessary information on how to access it, including directions, route information, and safety considerations.

Checking conditions

To receive the most up-to-date information about access to the eruption site, it is best to check safetravel.is. The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management website and Facebook page also provide information about safety at the site. Information on air quality in Iceland is available at loftgaedi.is. The site may be closed with short notice due to weather conditions or gas pollution, so make sure you check first before heading out.

Driving and parking

All off-road driving is illegal in Iceland. The hiking route to the eruption is accessed from Suðurstrandarvegur (Route 427). Cars must be parked at marked parking lots and parking on the side of the road is forbidden. Parking has a cost of ISK 1,000 [$7.60, €6.80] and can be paid online, more information is provided on-site.

Hiking route

The hike to the eruption is around 10km one way across uneven terrain. Hikers experienced with Icelandic conditions may be able to complete the hike in two hours one way (four hours round trip). Those with less experience should expect a hike of 3-4 hours one way, 6-8 hours round trip, which does not include time spent at the eruption itself. Hikers need proper footwear, warm clothing, and a wind- and rain-proof outer layer, and must bring food, water, and a fully charged cell phone. The hiking route is clearly marked from the available parking lots. More detailed information on hiking routes is available on visitreykjanes.is.

Safety risks

Visiting an active eruption poses several risks. One of the main risks is gas pollution, especially when conditions are still. Toxic gases from eruptions are heavier than the atmosphere meaning they gather close to the ground and in low-lying areas. This means that eruption sites pose a particular risk for children and pets, who are also more sensitive to toxic gases. Hikers are strongly discouraged from bringing young children or dogs to the eruption site. Surgical masks do not protect against toxic gases at eruptions.

Hikers are also encouraged to stay at a significant distance from the fresh lava, as new rivulets can break through suddenly and be difficult to escape from in due time. Visitors to the eruption should not under any circumstances walk on fresh lava: while the surface may look solid and cool, lava can remain molten underneath for years and even decades.

More about the eruption

For curious readers, Iceland Review has compiled an article with more information about the eruption itself. Several live feeds of the eruption are available online, including here and here.

This article will be updated regularly.