In Retrospect

Smouldering embers

Triggered by the scorching heat this year, major fire incidents have witnessed an increase — leading to huge loss of life and property; strict implementation of existing laws could prevent similar mishaps in future

Smouldering embers

The commencement of the summer season every year is usually accompanied by a rise in fire incidents across the country — whether in residential areas, commercial areas, industrial areas or forests. Usually, the fires are reported from enclosed spaces, vehicles, short circuits and outdoor spots. However, with the onset of the scorching heat, during the summer, this year, the capital city witnessed several major fire incidents so far. Calls to the Delhi Fire Service have also gone up compared to the last year during the same period.

Starting with a major fire engulfing the Maiden Crown banquet hall in the capital city's Peera Garhi Chowk area on April 10, an Air Conditioner compressor explosion took place in Southeast Delhi's Jamia Nagar on April 14 — where two people lost their lives. In the third major such incident, a fire broke out at East Delhi's Ghazipur landfill where the fire got controlled after almost 50 hours. Following a similar gigantic fire incident on April 26, at the Bhalswa landfill site in North Delhi, it took almost three days to control the fire. These fire incidents in landfills also created massive air pollution in adjacent areas and caused major health hazards to the residents.

When asked, experts say that as fire smoulders in the interior, a lot of effort is needed to control fire in the landfill. When the fire is in the upper part, it gets controlled but due to the smouldering fire in the inner part, the fire flares up again. These garbage dumps have the highest amount of plastic — making such fires difficult to control; plastic also stops water from going inside where exactly the fire is burning. In controlling such fires, the firefighters face trouble, as the fire engines are filled with water and weigh more. While trying to get the fire tenders deep inside, there also arises the possibility of accidents. So, extra hoses have to be installed to reach the fire.

Meanwhile, fire officials mentioned the scorching heat during the summer season to be the prime reason behind such an immense blaze. Methane gas, which is produced from waste, catches fire easily in these temperatures. There are many chemicals and compounds that can catch fire at higher temperatures. On the other hand, because of the summer, there is much more use of electric appliances like fans, coolers and air-conditioners. Owing to its increased passage, there is more electricity in circuits — leading to overheating, worsened by atmospheric heat. This leads to short circuits and sparking, causing fires. Also, vehicle fires go up because of similar issues in electrical circuits of vehicles and vapours of fuels catching fire.

Experts also say that in houses with tin roofs and walls, air temperatures soar. Attics or cramped spaces, where unused goods like papers, plastic objects, chemicals, and furniture are stored, are very vulnerable to fires during these months. The source of ignition can be a short circuit, overheating, leaked gas catching fire, human error etc. Dry garbage and dry foliage also catch fire more at higher temperatures. Every year, we see an upward trend in the number of fire incidents from January to May, the only exception being the lockdown period when there were fewer fires due to significantly less economic activity.

Director General of Delhi Fire Service (DFS) Atul Garg informed while speaking to the Millennium Post that for various types of buildings ranging from residential, commercial and industrial, there are a fixed set of fire safety rules that are mandated by the law. These include norms about fire safety equipment, structural norms such as those relating to exits and ventilation, the safety of electrical equipment, handling of chemicals and explosives etc. In places with large footfalls — such as educational institutes, companies, assembly halls, theatres, hotels and courts — strict norms are in place as per the National Building Code. Similarly, any new construction in the national capital is bound to get NOC from the fire department.

"There are many building authorities here (Delhi) — DDA, Cantonment Board, Metro, Rail etc. — who send us recommendations for any new construction and ask us to check the fire safety measures. The DFS officials check and recommend the changes if needed... Post

construction the officials survey the site and check the construction as per suggested drawing and provide the NOCs," the DFS chief said.

However, in the recent incident in Mundka (Outer Delhi) where a fire engulfed a four-storey building and 27 people were killed and many went missing, an investigation report claimed that the building owner did not have an NOC. In this regard, Garg claimed, "DFS is just a technical department, hence, the entire responsibility goes to the building authorities as they are aware of the new constructions. Not the fire department."

Furthermore, the senior official claimed that there are many industrial areas in Delhi — situated in non-authorised regions — which do not apply for any sort of NOCs. Mundka is one among those. Almost 3,000-4,000 small and medium units operate there but never seek NOCs. Hence, the fire safety measures, electric installations, technicalities and drawings of the buildings are also not checked, which result in such major fire incidents. Non-maintenance of wiring is also one of the prime reasons. The Delhi Fire Service recently collaborated with NGOs to spread awareness in slum areas and in camps, where many such major fire incidents took place in past years. This apart, the Delhi Police — a primary responder — play a significant role in such situations. The city police spokesperson Suman Nalwa categorically confirmed that a few of the licensing departments are under the metropolitan police service but they only provide documents after the fire NOC. At the same time, police take stringent actions under appropriate legal sections if the owner or the authority does not seek NOC or other required documents. The city police move first where they probably get less than three minutes of response time. They also have emergency vehicles, moving around many parts of the capital city. The police inform the fire service regarding any fire incident and make sure the fire tenders get a smooth passage in order to move fast to operate.

Meanwhile, the official data provided by the Delhi Fire Service (DFS), in April, shows a more than 70 per cent rise in the death toll in the year 2021-22, as compared to the erstwhile year; and a six per cent rise in the fire calls as compared to 2020-21. Data show a total of 591 people died in fire incidents in 2021-22 whereas 346 people had died in 2020-21. The total number of fire calls DFS received during 2021-22 was 27,343, whereas 25,709 calls were received during 2020-21.

However, at the same time, DFS officials confirmed that 13 fire incidents were marked under the 'medium fire category' and two were 'serious' in 2021-22 while in 2020-21, 19 fire incidents were marked under the 'medium fire category' and two were 'serious'.

During 2021-22, 1,421 persons sustained injuries while in 2020-21, 1,135 persons were injured. At the same time, the fire service also mentioned that in 2019-20, the number of calls responded to by the DFS was 31,157, medium fires were 27, serious fires were five, 308 people died and 1,638 were injured. In 2018-19, 31,264 calls were responded to by the DFS, 27 fires were marked as medium and four were serious, 297 persons died and 1,597 were injured. Similarly, in 2017-18, the calls responded to were 29,423, medium fires were 24, and four were marked as serious. During that year, 318 people died and 1,767 sustained injuries.

DFS responded to over 13,700 calls in the first six months of 2021, of which 8,700 calls were related to fire incidents, other data show. The fire service also mentioned in the document that it "continued to make sincere endeavours in protecting life and property of citizens... In the last year, 64 fire stations (including 3-day time-operating fire stations at Geetanjali Enclave, Jasola, and Yamuna Vihar) were established with the sole motto, 'We serve to save'". The capital's fire department provides fire safety cover to an area of around 1,490 sq. kilometres.

It is indeed worrying that despite concerted efforts by the officials, the problem of summer fires is getting worse each passing year rather than showing signs of abatement. Many of the factors exacerbating the fire problem — including rising temperature on account of climate change, electricity overload for economic activities, plastic-heavy garbage dumping etc. — are by and large beyond the administrative control.

The need of the hour is to create an ecosystem (or rather to undo adverse ecosystems) where these factors will have minimal impact in case of mishaps. For instance, Mundka is just one among the unorganised industrial clusters where tens of thousands of small and medium units operate without NOCs. To streamline the living and working conditions of residents in such areas, nothing short of a transformative long-term planning could work. Such clusters need to be mapped, problems identified and solutions chalked out. This structural change is possible only through a firm political will. If such risk-zones continue to thrive in India's capital city, accountability will have to be fixed sooner than later.

While the administration wakes up to the problem, a parallel endeavour will have to be made towards effective synchronisation of various entities including the fire department and the state/city police. Despite working in their best capacities, individual units find themselves helpless in preventing and mitigating the impact of fire mishaps. Standing and working together, they could collectively serve as change-makers and life-savers.

Views expressed are personal

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