Asbestos and Fire Is a Deadly Mix

House fire

Peter and Justine Upton and their three young children never imagined that they wouldn’t return to the place they called home after their neighbor’s asbestos shed exploded and burst into flames last September.

The young Australian family’s unfortunate situation aired on a current affairs program earlier this month. It was a harrowing tale of a loving family torn apart by circumstances beyond their control and highlights the danger posed by structures containing asbestos within our communities.

Recounting the events of that fateful night, Peter Upton told the show that he feared for his family’s life when strong winds sent flames from the burning shed towards their Australind property.

As the thick acrid smoke made its way into the house, his only thought was to get his family and dog into the car and to safety. In the chaos that followed, he remembers being hit by multiple fragments of exploding shed matter that showered his house and yard.

“I didn’t know it was exploding asbestos at the time,” he said.

By morning, he and Justine could see asbestos fragments everywhere. Some were as big as dinner plates, covering the front and back yard, both balconies, the children’s playground equipment and even the dog’s bed.

In the aftermath of the fire, the Upton’s was one of five neighboring properties affected by asbestos contamination.

On their property alone, a staggering 33 pounds of asbestos was found. A series of tests conducted within the Upton’s home revealed that deadly asbestos dust made its way inside and covered much of the furnishings and personal possessions.

The Shire of Harvey deemed the house unsafe for habitation.

Time and Separation Puts Family at Breaking Point

Eight long months have passed since the Upton’s lives were torn apart.

Thwarted by their neighbor’s insurance company’s refusal to take responsibility for the devastation caused to their property and their belief that the damage should not be addressed by their own insurance company — no resolution is in sight and the Upton’s life remains in turmoil.

Separated by necessity, Peter still lives in Australind while Justine and the children share a bedroom in her parent’s home 2,500 miles away in Wollongong.

When the Upton’s talk about the situation they are in, their heartache is palpable.

“It’s devastating. It’s broken our family. We’re not a whole family unit anymore,” Justine said. “Our house was our life, our security, our castle. We just want to go home.”

Sadly, the home they know and miss can never be their castle again.

Rebuilding from Scratch

“Today Tonight” accompanied Peter when he recently paid an emotional visit to the house he fled all those months ago.

Protected by masks, they gazed upon the sad reminders of a lifestyle lost. Yellow stickers — a testament to asbestos contamination — were everywhere; on food, clothing, furniture and private possessions.

Peter knows there is no chance of ever reclaiming his house or his family’s belongings again.

Already deeply concerned about the consequences of his and his family’s exposure to asbestos during the fire, he believes the only way to make sure all asbestos contamination is removed from his property is for the house to be completely demolished and 6 inches of soil removed from the front and back yard.

Only then can he begin the arduous task of rebuilding his family’s life.

Asbestos and Fire: What You Need to know

Most Australian homes built before 1990 likely contain asbestos in one form or another — commonly flat cement sheeting that has been reinforced (bonded) with 10 to 15 percent of asbestos fibers.

Often referred to as “fibro,” the sheets were extensively used in the building industry for walls and ceilings. Corrugated fibro sheets, known as “super six,” were also used for roofing and fences surrounding the properties.

In good condition, cement sheeting does not pose health risks. However, when involved in a fire, the sheeting becomes potentially deadly because of the intense heat and a reaction known as spalling — a build-up of steam within the cement matrix that causes it to explode.

The major concern regarding asbestos-related fires is the debris left behind in the form of fragments or bundles of asbestos fibers that have spread over a large area as a result of the spalling.

Asbestos contamination can be found within ash and dust after and during an asbestos fire as well as in water runoff from firefighting efforts.

Exposure to asbestos can lead to a person developing mesothelioma, a deadly cancer. Typically, 30 to 50 years goes by between exposure and the onset of the disease.

Steps to take after an asbestos fire include:

· Avoiding exposure and reducing disruption and cross-contamination of asbestos. Do not enter the area.

· Immediately seeking professional advice and arranging for an asbestos risk assessment. Be aware that this may result in demolition.

· Arranging for an accredited and licensed asbestos removal contractor to remove and dispose all asbestos fire debris in a controlled and safe manner.

· Requesting independent asbestos analysis of atmospheric testing before, during and after removal of debris and the issuing of an asbestos clearance report.

Losing your home can be devastating, but it is important to be mindful of the dangers of asbestos exposure and take the proper measures keep your family safe.


Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net.

  1. Weintraub, E. (2017, July 22). Definition of Spalling and How to Identify It. Retrieved from https://www.thebalance.com/what-is-spalling-1798631
  2. Civildigital.com. (n.d.). Spalling of Concrete — Causes, Prevention & Repair. Retrieved from http://civildigital.com/spalling-concrete-causes-prevention-repair/
  3. Government of Western Australia: Department of Health. (n.d.). Asbestos Fire Contamination. Retrieved from https://www.agric.wa.gov.au/sites/gateway/files/Asbestos%20fire%20contamination.pdf
  4. Safe Environments. (n.d.). Asbestos Fire. Retrieved from http://www.safeenvironments.com.au/asbestos-fire/
  5. White, S. (2017, May 3). WA family split apart by asbestos nightmare after Australind explosion. Retrieved from https://thewest.com.au/news/wa/wa-family-split-apart-by-asbestos-nightmare-after-australind-explosion-ng-b88464856z

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