Come winter and there is a surge in fire incidents in Srinagar — a city of 1.4 million — mostly in shops and homes. This year has seen no exception. On October 25th, fire damaged two residential structures in the old city area of Rajouri Kadal.
“We called the Fire and Emergency Department control room in time, but fire tenders reached the site only about an hour later,” said Abdur Rashid, whose house was damaged in the blaze. “Had they reached the spot quicker, both houses would have been saved.”
The fire started from his house and engulfed his neighbour’s house too within no time. A short circuit was believed to be the cause. “We dialled all the emergency numbers,” said Nisar Ahmed, owner of second house damaged in the fire incident. “But the fire tenders reached very late, by when the fire had engulfed both houses.”
Nisar’s wife said that they are living in a makeshift house now as they lost everything in the fire. “I sold my jewellery to construct the house, but fire turned it into ashes in just two hours,” she said amid tears.
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Abdul Aziz Dar, an elderly shopkeeper at busy Nowhatta area of old Srinagar, said that every locality in downtown Srinagar should have a Quick Response Team (QRT) of the Fire and Emergency Department (F&ED) to respond to such fire incidents.
“They should hire space in every locality and must have two small to medium fire tenders always in ready mode. We have seen that it takes almost an hour for the fire tenders to reach the spot whenever there is any fire incident in any part of downtown Srinagar”.
Even though fire incidents across Kashmir have shown a decline due to increased use of concrete construction, Srinagar’s downtown area, known as the old city, continues to remain vulnerable to fire incidents during winter months. Traditionally, in Srinagar and elsewhere in Kashmir, wood, clay and half-baked bricks were the primary material used for the construction of houses etc. Half-baked bricks are popularly known as Maharaja brick, as a majority of constructions that took place during Maharaja Hari Singh’s tenure (1925-1952), were made up half-baked bricks and wooden material.
The main reasons for the rising fire incidents is increasing use of electronic gadgets, gas heaters, fire pots, kerosene bukharis etc. Apart from this, the old structures made of wood are particularly vulnerable to fire incidents. The old city areas house almost one-third of Srinagar’s population.
Data accessed by Citizen Matters from the Fire and Emergency Department Kashmir, suggests that since 2016, property worth Rs 30 crore, homes and shops have perished due to fire incidents in Srinagar district alone.
The figures in 2022, up to October 31st, show that Srinagar district recorded 400 fire calls of which 13 were false calls. These damaged 294 structures, 38 shopping complexes and 30 electronic transformers.
In 2020 and 2021, Srinagar district registered 289 and 357 fire calls respectively in the city. As per official figures, two persons died in fire incidents and 16 suffered injuries since 2020. Since 2020, property including residential houses, shops, shopping complexes and electric transformers worth Rs 150 Crore were damaged, as per the official data.
The data further states that Srinagar district tops the list with more fire calls and fire incidents. Figures suggest that since 2016, property worth Rs 500 crore got damaged across Kashmir, with Srinagar alone losing Rs 230 crore worth property.
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“Srinagar district, especially its old city parts, are vulnerable to fire incidents throughout the year but winter months are very crucial and full of challenges,” says Bashir Ahmed Shah, Joint Director Fire and Emergency Services.
“In remaining districts of Kashmir, even in far off villages, people prefer concrete constructions especially slabs in first and second storeys of their houses. Even though windows and doors are made of wood, but 60 to 70% construction across Kashmir is concrete which prevents damage in case of fire”.
However, Srinagar remains vulnerable as a majority of constructions in Srinagar’s old city — that includes Hawal, Nowhatta, Rajouri Kadal, Zaina Kadal, Saraf Kadal, Sekidafar, Nawakadal, Nowshehra, Ali Kadal, Kawdara, Eidgah, Nawabazar, Habba Kadal, and other areas — continues to be of wood and are old and date back to the 1970s and 1980s. “Some structures are more than 50 years old with very less brick work,” Shah said.
He said that use of heating gadgets during winter including gas heaters, fire-pots, room heaters, lead to increase in fire incidents. “Huge load on power wires not designed to handle such loads leads to short circuits which results in fire in the houses,” he said. Bashir Shah urges people of old Srinagar to take precautions to prevent fire incidents in the winter months—November to February.
Outdated vehicles and equipment
Whenever there is a fire incident in any part of downtown Srinagar, the fire department officials face multiple challenges, the main ones being narrow lanes which makes it difficult for fire dousing vehicles to enter such lanes and shortage of water.
“It takes time for our men to lay pipes to reach the actual spot of fire as downtown is a congested area where there are narrow lanes and houses close to each other. In such a situation, people beat and argue our men which complicates the situation and delays dousing of the fire,” said Bashir Shah. “Water stocked in the fire dousing machine also gets emptied in a jiffy and it becomes difficult to manage water. We can’t park more than two or three fire extinguishing vehicles on the narrow roads,” he adds.
The Fire and Emergency Services Department has also been facing acute shortage of man power. In 2020, some 700 men were recruited into it which provided relief to the department to some extent. But shortage of officials in districts is hitting its performance badly.
“There is a dearth of district level officers as we have only a few presently,” said Shah. Replying to a query about shortage of modern fire extinguishing vehicles, he said that even though the World Bank has provided a few new vehicles to the department, “there is no denying the fact that a majority of the vehicles in the department’s fleet are 20 or even 30 years old”.
“Given the nature of areas we are involved in vis-à-vis fire operations, we need latest fire extinguishing gadgets, vehicles, and climbing tools on modern lines.”
Replying to a query about allegations by locals that fire tenders always reach the incident site late, Shah said, “Since downtown Srinagar is a congested area, people park their private vehicles on the roads and even dump construction material including sand and bajiri on roads. This is the main reason why fire tenders reach the fire incident sites late.”
The heritage issue
Noted historian and Kashmiri poet Professor Zareef Ahmed Zareef said that downtown is Kashmir’s face as it reflects the culture and age of tradition of the Valley and that “it is our collective responsibility to protect it. In the past we have seen blazes damaging two famous shrines in Srinagar. Both such incidents happened in winter and the reason was believed to be a short circuit. As far as the rise in fire incidents in downtown is concerned, people should take precautions themselves.”
“Any suggestion to dismantle or decongest the old city is unacceptable, as that would amount to deleting the history and great tradition of Kashmir. You can’t stop people of Srinagar from using heating gadgets and fire pots as there is no other choice”.
Which means learning to live with the threat of fire every winter.