Yet again gutted, fires are occurring with an unpleasant regularity in Chamkhar town. The fourth, and latest, started at 8:40pm on Wednesday night and razed 23 shops in six houses to the ground in two hours.
Aum Lemo was starting a khuley and ema datsi dinner when the power died. After a bite in the darkness her sister told her she smelled smoke. It was then that shouts of “Fire Fire” were heard from the streets. She and her sister made a panicked exit from the house and by the time they were outside flames were already licking up the sides of her building.
As Aum Lemo watched the fire growing stronger with each exploding LPG cylinder in dismay, members of the public, RBP firefighters, civil servants, DeSuups and monks contained the fire by 11pm.
Five houses were burnt and the RBP firefighters employed defensive operations to reduce exposure to the rest of the structures by demolishing another building. Twenty three shops and 120 families lost all their belongings to the fire as did the ten owners (including joint owners) of the buildings. The affected were given essentials as aid and were put up with relatives and friends.
Initial suspicions of the fire starting from a short circuit (from a plugged in water boiler) were ruled out. It is suspected that the fire started from a leaking LPG stove.
Police has definitively ruled out arson in Wednesday’s fire. Captain Jamyang Dorji of the RBP Bumthang division said people were still up and moving about town when the fire started making it highly unlikely for any culprit to go unnoticed. Locals have raised no such suspicions either.
Due to the frequency of the fires, three from October 2011 to May 2011, Chamkhar residents had voiced suspicion that it was the work of an arsonist in 2011. Following these complaints police launched an investigation but came up with neither evidence nor motive.
Ten of the shops had insured their goods and stocks with Royal Insurance Corporation of Bhutan. However, Aum Lemo is the only owner who has insured her house.
RICB Executive Director Sonam Dorji said the company’s branch manager was on site assessing damages and initial reports estimate payouts to be up to Nu.15mn. “We are doing everything to expedite the process and payouts will be done within the next few days.”
Bhutan Insurance Limited, Aum Lemo’s insurance provider, also has the area engineer on site assessing damages.
The repetition of Chamkhar’s fires has been viewed by many as a combination of complacency, negligence and inadequate fire prevention measures. Adding to it the requirement of every household for a bukhari in the cold Bumthang nights in primarily timber based architecture makes for a brewery for disaster.
The RBP firefighting division and disaster management officials have been conducting fire safety awareness and drills but response from the people has been less than encouraging.
“It is important that the public cooperate with the authorities and participate in. It could not only prevent financial losses but, more importantly, lives too.”
Fire safety detection systems have also been under scrutiny following numerous fires around the country, most notably the Wangdue Dzong, with a Disaster Management report finding poorly maintained and near obsolete equipments throughout the country.