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Two-story building at Russian station that caught fire.
Photo Credit: Hannes Grobe/Alfred Wegener Institute
A two-story building at the Russian research station Progress caught fire on Oct. 5, killing one person and completely destroying the structure. The situation is a reminder that safety must remain a concern while working in Antarctica, according to NSF officials.

Fire at Russian station

Blaze claims one life, points to need for safety vigilance in Antarctica

A fire claimed one life, injured two people, and destroyed a two-story building at the Russian Antarctic Expedition (RAE) research station Progress External Non-U.S. government site in East Antarctica on Oct. 5.

“The station team was not able to cope with the fire by their own efforts and the building was completely destroyed by fire,” said Valery Lukin, head of RAE, in an e-mail to the Council of Managers of Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) External Non-U.S. government site, an association of the 29 countries with active research programs.

Karl A. Erb, director of the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs External U.S. government site, expressed his condolence along with those of the U.S. Antarctic Program External U.S. government site, in a personal letter to Lukin, according to Peter West, a spokesperson for the NSF. West said Erb also offered the USAP’s assistance “in any way possible” in the letter.

George Blaisdell, USAP Operations manager, said the incident is a reminder that accidents can have serious consequences in the challenging Antarctic environment. He urged USAP participants to “think about how this very unfortunate incident can be used as a reminder” to be more aware about safety.

The USAP runs three year-round research stations, two science vessels, and a number of field camps. McMurdo Station External U.S. government site, the largest of the three facilities, maintains a professional fire department. South Pole and Palmer External U.S. government site stations rely on volunteers, some of whom attend weeklong trainings at a Denver area firefighting school before leaving for the continent.

Antarctic Map
Graphic Credit: COMNAP
A map of Antarctica shows the location of various research stations, including the Russian station Progress.
Aerial view of the Russian station Progress.
Photo Credit: AARI
An aerial view of the Russian station Progress.

There were 29 people at Progress at the time of the fire. The one person killed in the fire and the two people who were injured are part of a 10-person construction team. The injured were taken to China’s Zhongshan research station External Non-U.S. government site, about 1½ kilometers away from Progress, according to Novosti, the Russian State News Agency External Non-U.S. government site.

“We are very grateful to Chinese colleagues from Zhongshan station for their immense help and various assistances provided after the fire,” Lukin said in the message to COMNAP. “We are not asking the Antarctic community for help, as the situation at the station is not critical and station continues operation.”

The fire also destroyed the station’s radio equipment, which made it impossible to contact Russian officials about the incident until about four days later, Novosti reported.

“There is no need for an evacuation due to medical concerns,” Russia’s Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute External Non-U.S. government site, which oversees the RAE program, said in a statement through Novosti.

“At present, the station team … lives in the old, small houses left by previous builders. The fire did not spread to the other station facilities, so we have the mess hall and the galley, the medical unit, ‘warm’ and ‘cold’ warehouses, all transport vehicles and also the facilities of the new wintering station under construction,” Lukin said.

“All food, fuel and medical supplies were preserved,” Lukin added. “The people are provided with normal meals, polar clothing and medical service.”

The Progress research station opened in 1989, and it is located in the Larsemann Hills in East Antarctica. Construction of year-round facilities began in 2004. The burnt building was constructed in 1991. 

There are no plans to evacuate the injured personnel at this time unless their injuries worsen, according to Lukin. The RAE will dispatch a plane in early December to the station, and a vessel will deliver new personnel and equipment at the end of the year.

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