Why Earthquakes Start Fires: Risks and Safety Tips

why do earthquakes often cause damaging fires

You hear a lot about the dangers of tsunamis associated with earthquakes, with good reason. But fires are the second most dangerous hazard involved in an earthquake.

Let’s look at why earthquakes often cause damaging fires and how you and yours can remain safe after it’s passed.

Why do earthquakes often cause damaging fires?

An earthquake itself happens when two tectonic plates collide and cause ground shaking.

When an earthquake happens, fires are often a result because it causes the ground to rupture, which leads to landslides and other hazards. Gas lines and electricity infrastructure suffers the most.

It Only Takes a Spark


Gas lines are especially at risk, but when the earth ruptures, it will break the lines. When gas builds up in any area, all it takes is a spark, and a full-on fire has begun.

If a fire starts due to a gas leak, it needs to be put out immediately to keep it from spreading and doing further damage. You must try to suffocate the fire using whatever you have on hand.

  • water
  • woolen cloths
  • sand
  • ashes 
  • fire extinguisher

While you can try and fight the fire yourself, always call emergency services ASAP.

Get Away from Gas Leaks

  • Call emergency services and leave the area immediately if you suspect a gas leak. 
  • Phone lines might be down, and that leaves you in charge. Let everyone knows what’s up and evacuate the area.
  • Never return to the scene of a gas leak until you get the thumbs up.

The Fires That Follow

An earthquake’s aftermath will always bring chaos, including downed lines, trees, and leaking gas pipes.

Downed electrical lines cause a power outage, and the broken lines can also start a fire. Property and infrastructure have already taken on damage, which makes them prime to catch aflame.

If You’re Trapped After an Earthquake

You’re not always going to have time to grab the whistle out of your emergency to-go bag. You will have to rely on tapping and banging on pipes and walls.

Shouting is dangerous because of the things you could inhale that will do damage to your lungs, including smoke. But you may not always have a choice. 

Your phone likely has an SOS sound. Now is the time to blare your phone to get someone’s attention

Things Fall Down

Another consequence of an earthquake is that objects can fall into heaters, fireplaces, and lit stoves. It leads to house fires that can spread into entire neighborhoods.

Always put out any open flame in the minutes following an earthquake.

Are fires likely after an earthquake?

Shake damage is the most likely damage during and after an earthquake. An earthquake ups the chances of a fire breaking out, though. 

How do I prevent fire damage from an earthquake?

You can’t prevent an earthquake, but you can take steps to prevent a fire.

  1. Turn off all of the gas in the building or home.
  2. Grab the fire extinguisher in your fire emergency kit and have it ready, just in case.
  3. Any fire or hazardous material needs to be secured and safely stored.
  4. Don’t use your gas-run appliances until you’re in the clear. 

Earthquake Warning System

Those living in a region prone to earthquakes will receive some sort of earthquake warning, such as Earthquake Warning CA. But it’s not the only option.

United States Geological Survey (USGS) developed the ShakeAlert® system as a warning system for earthquakes. ShakeAlert® sends out alerts, so people have a chance to drop, cover, and hold on (DCHO).

What caused the fires in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake?

Water and gas mains broke open during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, which led to a massive gas leak.

Because the water lines broke, too, there was no water to put out the fires to which the leak was the catalyst. The earthquake and resulting fires did $500 million in damage – in 1906.

Did the Haiti Earthquake 2010 cause fires?

Almost all earthquakes cause some sort of fire. In the Haiti Earthquake in 2010, massive structural and foundation damage were the biggest concerns.

But, fires and nonstructural damage added to the $2 billion cost to repair.

What causes fires to ignite after an earthquake?

  • A spark happens during a gas leak which leads to a fire or even an explosion.
  • Fires typically happen after an earthquake because of down electrical lines and broken gas lines.
  • Home decor and other objects can fall into an existing flame or hot spot within a home.

Plan Your Earthquake Emergency Response 

Preparedness means you have a leg up on any emergency event, including an earthquake. 

Drop, Cover, and Hold On

You will want to practice Drop, Cover, and Hold On with family members and coworkers, so they know what to expect.

  • Drop. You want to get down and under a sturdy desk or table. While under there, grab onto a leg of the furniture. 
  • Cover. The head is the most delicate part of our body, which means you will want to cover it and your neck under the desk or table. If you can’t find a sturdy piece of furniture, just cover your head and neck with your hands and arms.
  • Hold. You are staying there, sheltering in place, until the shake completely stops.

Aftershocks are likely to happen. The more minor earthquakes will cause further damage, and you need to be prepared to drop, cover, and hold again.

Family Emergency Plan

An emergency plan must include contact from out-of-state for this exact scenario. You will want to put a plan in place in case you’re separated.

How to Stay Safe During an Earthquake

  • If you get caught in bed, roll facedown and stack as many pillows as you can atop your head to protect it and your neck.
  • Get off the road if possible. The violent ripples of an earthquake can cause buildings and bridges to collapse and create other serious road hazards. Pull over, stop, and set your parking brake.
  • People caught outdoors during an earthquake should always steer clear of buildings and other structures. At any point, something could fall or catch fire after an earthquake hits.
  • Don’t run outside during an earthquake. The only exception is if the building has obvious damage and is possibly at risk of falling or catching fire.
  • Stay away from doorways, regardless of what you’ve heard. 

After the danger is over, check everyone for injuries. You will want to administer first aid & CPR to those you can while waiting for emergency services.  Use a respirator if there are nearby fires.

Earthquake Emergency Supply Kit

A well-stocked emergency kit can mean the difference between life and death. You are the first responder. Emergency response teams will be stretched to their limit during an earthquake.

Earthquake Proofing

You can prepare and protect your home from earthquake and fire damage. 

All bookshelves, fridges, heaters, TVs, and hanging objects all require securing if they’re to escape an earthquake in one piece.

It never hurts to check for structural issues before an earthquake happens. You can consult with earthquake professionals and do the updates needed.

Earthquake Insurance

People that live in Earthquake zones will always benefit from having earthquake insurance on their side. 

Standard homeowner’s insurance will not cover earthquakes unless you specify and pay the additional cost.

FAQs about Earthquakes and Fires

Why do earthquakes often cause damaging fires responses?

Earthquakes often result in damaging fires due to the rupture of gas lines and the disruption of power lines, which in turn creates the necessary fuel and ignition sources for fires to start.

What earthquake causes damage?

The earthquake that causes damage is the one with a magnitude of 6.1 to 6.9, which may result in significant damage in densely populated areas.

What fault causes the most damaging earthquakes?

The fault that causes the most damaging earthquakes is reverse faults, especially those found along convergent plate boundaries. These types of faults are responsible for the most powerful earthquakes, known as megathrust earthquakes, which include nearly all earthquakes with a magnitude of 8 or higher. On the other hand, strike-slip faults, particularly continental transforms, can generate significant earthquakes up to approximately magnitude 8.

Do earthquakes that are close to the surface cause the most damage?

Earthquakes that occur close to the surface cause the most damage due to the characteristics of surface waves. These waves, which travel at different speeds depending on their wavelengths, are responsible for producing significant ground movement. Because surface waves travel more slowly than other types of waves, such as body waves, they take longer to pass, resulting in extended periods of shaking that can lead to more property damage.

How do earthquakes cause landslides?

Earthquakes cause landslides by significantly increasing the chances of ground failure in areas prone to such events. The likelihood of landslides is particularly heightened when the ground is already saturated with water, especially after periods of heavy rainfall. The shaking caused by strong earthquake ground shaking leads to a higher occurrence of landslides compared to usual conditions.

Why can earthquakes cause fires?

Earthquakes can cause fires due to the displacement and rupture of electrical and gas lines within buildings. The movement and breakage of these lines can result in electrical damage, leading to sparks that can ignite flammable materials. Additionally, the rupture of gas lines can release gas, which, when exposed to a spark, can trigger a fire.

Are fires common after earthquakes?

Fires are indeed common after earthquakes. For instance, during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, fires persisted for three days and caused more destruction than the earthquake itself.

Do fires happen during earthquakes?

Fires can occur during earthquakes due to the disruption of fuel and water lines, which can lead to the spillage or flow of water or gas into homes or the streets. Within minutes of a significant earthquake, there could potentially be numerous fire incidents.

Are fires the most common earthquake related hazard?

Fires are indeed the most frequent hazard associated with earthquakes, as they often result from ruptured gas lines, impaired electrical systems or devices, and the release of previously contained fires or sparks. It is advisable to use the stairs rather than the elevator when evacuating a building after the shaking subsides.

What damage do earthquakes cause?

The damage caused by earthquakes includes ground shaking, soil liquefaction, landslides, fissures, avalanches, fires, and tsunamis. The magnitude of an earthquake determines the extent of destruction and harm it can cause.

Where do earthquakes cause the most damage?

The state with the most earthquakes (not human-induced) is California, which experiences more earthquakes causing damage than any other state. Additionally, Alaska also has a high frequency of earthquakes (not human-induced).

Do earthquakes cause a lot of damage?

Earthquakes can cause significant damage when they occur in populated areas. The impact of ground shaking, surface ruptures, and liquefaction can lead to the collapse or damage of buildings, roads, and bridges. As a result, people may suffer injuries or even lose their lives.

Why do earthquakes tend to cause more damage in other parts of the world?

Earthquakes tend to cause more damage in other parts of the world due to a combination of factors, including inadequate design and construction of buildings for earthquake-prone areas, as well as high population density.

Do the strongest earthquakes cause the most damage?

While it is commonly believed that big earthquakes cause more damage than small earthquakes, it is important to consider that the magnitude alone is not the sole determining factor. There are instances where a smaller magnitude earthquake can actually result in more destruction than one of larger magnitude.

Do earthquakes cause more damage than volcanoes?

Earthquakes do not cause as much damage as volcanoes because the destructive force of an earthquake dissipates after traveling a relatively short distance, whereas a large gas cloud produced by a volcanic eruption can cover a larger area, making it more deadly.

Is a reason earthquakes often cause fires when they strike a community?

The reason earthquakes often cause fires when they strike a community is due to various factors such as broken gas lines and power lines, as well as tipped over wood or coal stoves. This can become a significant issue, particularly if the water lines supplying the fire hydrants are also damaged. A notable example is the Great San Francisco Earthquake in 1906, where the city burned for three days after the earthquake occurred.

By Anita Brown

Anita Brown is our go-to contributor to our emergency preparedness website. Anita brings a wealth of personal experience and professional expertise to the table, having weathered several awful natural disasters. Anita is currently working towards obtaining her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.