27 November 2004 – A fire at a sawmill in the motorvehicle workshop complex in Changzamtog, Thimphu, this week was fortunatelyextinguished before it destroyed other houses but not before the entireneighborhood received a major fright. Given the flimsy wooden structures builtclose to each other the damage could have been far worse.
But this is of little comfort. There is a fire in the same area nearly everyyear. The frightened screams of mothers and children and the fears of theirpanicking neighbours are becoming all too familiar to this part of town.
We have also seen people killed or injured, property damaged, and familiesrendered homeless in several parts of the valley. Many residents will neverforget the raging flames that threaten them time and time again.
Another significant fact is that the fires are usually caused by the samepredictable factors like poor electrification that is often illegally connected,wood fires out of control, and kerosene or gas stoves left unattended. In otherwords the real cause is human carelessness.
The houses or hutments that suffer from fires are usually temporarysettlements, cobbled together with wood bark, discarded ply board, and otherinflammable material. They are all built against each other so every fire claimsa number of dwellings.
Given the temporary nature of these hutments they do not meet RICBsinsurance criteria. Apart from the human factor this in itself indicates thatsuch dwellings should not be allowed.
But, despite the repeated tragedies, we seem to be able to do nothing aboutthe obvious risks although they are not subtle risks but blatant menaces that donot require great expertise to recognise. Our unsafe neighborhoods continue togrow.
Come winter the risk of fires is greatly enhanced, given the dry air and thewinds that sweep through the valley. The greatly improved fire fighting service- excepting the occasional lapses – are often called to fight ragingflames.
We are all too familiar with the forest fires that have threatened largepatches of our forests and environment. Over the years we have seen severalmeasures taken by the government, from preventive policies to physical actionslike the fire-breaks that line the hill slopes.
It is time to translate this preventive approach, at the policy level, intothe urban setting. Given todays trend the threat to towns could be moredestructive than a forest fire.
As we plan the development of our capital city and other towns this threatdeserves attention. To start with, we need a clear plan supported by rules andlegislation. Our urban planners claim that the plans are in place. What we neednow is law, including the fire act that it now under discussion.
But, more than anything else, we seem to need common sense and basicawareness. Many of these vulnerable hutments could be made safer with a littleattention.