Local authorities announced this week that the cause of the massive fire that gutted Brazil's 200-year-old National Museum in September 2018 was an improperly installed air conditioning unit on the ground floor of the museum. The fire destroyed roughly 90 percent of the facility's 20 million artifacts.
"[The] air conditioners failed to meet manufacturer recommendations regarding the use of separate circuit breakers and grounding devices, according to an Agence France-Press report," an article published in Smithsonian magazine reads. "The Associated Press adds that units received a stronger electrical current than they were made to conduct, created a powder keg situation poised for disaster." A page on NFPA's website details the adoption and use of NFPA 70®, National Electrical Code®, in Latin America. While 12 countries are listed, including ones that border Brazil like Venezuela and Peru, Brazil is not.
On top of the unsafe electrical practices, a number of other factors at the museum contributed to the fire's rapid spread and severity. I reported on these in a November 2018 "Dispatches" article in NFPA Journal.
"According to museum experts, fire safety officials, and politicians who were interviewed after the incident, it was a loss that could have been prevented with additional attention and resources for the museum, which could have paved the way for critical fire safety upgrades," the article says. "The 200-year-old building, a former palace for the Portuguese royal family, lacked fire sprinklers and fire doors. Fire hydrants close to the museum failed to provide responding firefighters with an adequate water supply to fight the flames." The article goes on to explain how similar fire safety deficiencies exist in many historic buildings worldwide—not just museums—"because of a lack of government support, misconceptions among property owners, and the intrinsic challenges—and costs—of retrofitting historic, sometimes centuries-old structures with modern fire and life safety technology."
A sidebar to that piece included interviews with NFPA staffers who reflected on the Brazil museum fire. "Brazil’s economy, which has been experiencing ups and downs, doesn’t help the situation, as issues with more immediate importance get addressed while preventing tragedies like the museum fire are put on the backburner," Anderson Queiroz, NFPA's representative to Brazil, told me. "I simply don’t see any tangible solution in the short-term, except to count on luck and divine help that more fires like this don’t happen."