Natalia Flores-Quiroz – A winding road to success

[Article by Nane Zietsman]

Natalia Flores-Quiroz has made a lasting impression with her work in fire engineering research. Dr Flores-Quiroz, born and raised in Chile, started her career as a qualified electrical engineer. She worked as a Fire Safety Engineer for six years before deciding to enter academia and pursue a master’s degree in Belgium. On her decision to return to university, Dr Flores-Quiroz comments that she has no regrets, even though it was not an easy route: “As you might have noticed I didn’t follow the conventional path to get to academia. It wasn’t an easy decision and the process of going back to study after so many years was complicated but completely worth it.”

After completing her master’s degree in Fire Safety, Dr Flores-Quiroz sought opportunities to broaden her horizons and applied for a PhD position at Stellenbosch University. The position initially came with a defined topic and supervisor but as her research progressed, Dr Flores-Quiroz identified an opportunity to apply the topic to a different area within the fire safety field. Her project studied real informal settlement fire events in order to understand the occurrence in a holistic way. “Through this analysis it was possible to have a better understanding of how the fires started, what influenced fire spread rates, and how inhabitants and firefighters responded,” explains Dr Flores-Quiroz. More than 5000 informal settlement fires are reported each year in South Africa, yet there is little knowledge on how they started, what influenced fire spread rates, and how communities responded. Under the supervision of Prof. Richard Walls (Department of Civil Engineering), Dr Flores-Quiroz developed the first framework and approach specifically designed for understanding what happens in an informal settlement fire incident. “Part of the value of this framework and approach is that it allows us to develop evidence-based interventions for informal settlement fires,” says Prof. Walls.

Dr Flores-Quiroz is currently applying her work, as a Postdoctoral researcher, to one of the world’s largest refugee camp fires which occurred in Cox’s Bazaar in Bangladesh. Apart from publishing four journal papers, and co-authoring another four through her studies, she also received a Society for Fire Protection Engineering (USA) student grant from her work. She plans to continue working in the Fire Engineering Research Unit at Stellenbosch University.

Photograph: Dr Natalia Flores-Quiroz (left) analyzed a real-life incident.