On the surface Taktsang is well armored against fire with fire safety equipments like a fire alarm system, an ultra high pressure pump, fire extinguishers and hoses. However, none of them has worked since eight months after its installation in July 2015.
In a meeting conducted on 18th October 2013 for the Development of Taktshang Management Plan and the Fire Safety of Taktshang Monastery by the Paro Dzongkhag administration, the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB) had agreed to fund the installation of ‘Wireless Fire Detector and Alarm system and Ultra High Pressure water mist system’ for the safety of the monastery from imminent fire hazard situations.
The agreement was that TCB would supply the funds and the Fire Services Division (FSD), RBP, Thimphu would coordinate the installation of the system and the Paro Dzongkhag administration would foot the yearly maintenance bills.
Following this, Tashi Choki Dorji (TCD) Traders were given the contract for the supply and installation of the Wireless Fire Detector and Alarm system and Ultra High Pressure water mist system.
What seems to have been overlooked is a line of action to be taken if the equipments were to be somehow damaged which is exactly what happened; an electrical surge due to a lightning damaged the wired equipments.
“I saw a flash of lightning and along with the fire alarm system some of our TV screens were fried too,” said the Taktsang Lam Neten. The RBP security detail at Taktsang in a handing-over report at the end of their monthly shift on 22nd July 2015 also stated that the fire alarm system was not functional anymore.
Small fire alarm systems, unless specified by the purchasers, are not provided with grounding and rely on the earthing provisions existing in the sites’ circuit to discharge excess charges like those caused by a lightning. Manufacturers build a limited amount of surge immunity into their electrical equipments and different manufacturers may provide different levels of protection but no matter the measures, lightning can sometimes do irreparable harm.
However, this still does not explain how the system has not been fixed over a year after it was first reported broken.
Another problem is the defunct ultra high pressure water mist system which The Bhutanese saw spurting a very small trickle when an RBP personnel tried to operate it.
A Paro RBP fire official said that the pump had been reported as broken and the Fire Services Division had sent a mechanic from Thimphu but he had been unable to repair the pump to the same level of functionality it was in when it was handed over by TCD.
The FSD was to undertake periodical inspection and monitoring of the system. The TCB, meanwhile is unaware of the current state of the system that they funded in Taktsang.
“TCB has not received any updates on the current state of the system so far,” a TCB statement to The Bhutanese read.
Fires have always been a big danger to our pristine forests and primarily timber based architecture; more so for our centuries old buildings, Dzong and Lhakhangs.
While wild fires are often beyond our control, the case for our buildings and landmarks is very different. Drukgyel Dzong (1951), Taktsang (1998), Wangdi Dzong (2012) and many other historical landmarks could have been spared their fiery tragedies if these places only had had more alert lookouts or, more recently, access to functioning fire alarm systems. What is even more dangerous is living under a pretext of safety while nothing of the sort is even remotely the ground reality.
Despite history’s gruesome reminders, fire safety is still egregiously inadequate throughout the country with the Royal Audit Authority’s Performance Audit on Disaster Management from 2010-2015 also finding implementation of fire safety measures in public buildings around the country either minimal or nonexistent.
“Who would be accountable if Taktsang caught fire again?” asked Dawa Yoezer a tour guide and frequent climber of the Taktsang trail, “And more importantly, what if there was a fire?!”
The rebuilding of Taktsang after the 1998 fire cost Nu 135 mn and took seven years.