At least 11 people have been killed in a fire that broke out in a welfare home which primarily houses elderly people with financial difficulties in northern Japan. Dozens of fighters were battling the blaze in snowy conditions.

Flames engulfed the three-storey building late on Wednesday, 31 January, in the city of Sapporo, on the island of Hokkaido. The facility, run by a local organisation which supports homeless people, is located in a residential locality.

According to Japan Today, a witness heard 10 explosions following which the fire spread throughout the building.

The entire roof reportedly collapsed due to the fire.
Police said there were 16 residents at the time of the fire. Five people have been rescued and three of them have been admitted to a hospital. Usually, none of the staff members from the not-for-profit organisation, Homeless Support Hokkaido Network, which runs the facility, are present during nights, local reports say.

"The smoke and flames were rising vertically. If there had been wind, the damage would have been bigger," a 65-year-old unnamed witness from the neighbourhood told Jiji Press. "The surrounding area was bright as if it were a day because of efforts to extinguish [the] fire, and smoke lasted until near the dawn."

Images broadcast by the state-run broadcaster NHK showed thick black smoke blanketing the 50-year-old building, which was formerly used as a hotel.

Police have launched an investigation into the cause of the fire, which brought memories of a similar fire in 2010 in the city of Sapporo in Japan's northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido, killing seven people in their 60s to 80s.

Japan welfare home fire
The charred exterior of a senior persons welfare facility is pictured in Sapporo, Hokkaido Reuters