The first serious discussions about the need to make the growing commercial port of Phnom Penh more accident ready were had between 1900 and 1901.
Previously, the town had had access to seven hand-operated pumps, but at the turn of the century there was a new drive to muster more powerful equipment: steam-operated fire engines that could shoot jets of water up to 50 metres.
The machines, which were already operational in Saigon, had to be shipped from France by the minister for the colonies.
Protecting lives wasn’t the main motivation: the engines were situated in the commercial port, to guard against damage to trade. “All desirable precautions must be taken to ensure that the pumps are sent to Phnom Penh in perfect condition to deliver the services expected of them,” reads the letter sent to request the pumps from France.
“Their value is important in order that the Protectorate surrounds itself with all possible guarantees.”
Outside the sphere of colonial interests, fires were devastating. In December 1901, a blaze in the Phum Thom commune in Kandal province decimated 30 houses when a “Chinese man” accidentally set fire to his kitchen. No record was made of the casualties sustained.
In 1908, Phnom Penh’s Garrison Commander Chapuis set out a new comprehensive strategy for fire prevention in the city. A guard, stationed permanently at Wat Phnom, was instructed to use his elevated vantage point to look out for smoke and flames coming from the surrounding buildings.
Once spotted, he was to raise the alarm to his supervisor, who would send a chain of messengers running to a dozen other high-powered colonial officials to inform them of the blaze. There was no trained force to do the actual firefighting.
Instead, the Khmer National Guard was requested to furnish 25 men to help fight the inferno, with a strict warning not to touch any valuables they might chance across inside.