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Thousands homeless as city burns

Thousands homeless as city burns


Cramped housing, lack of resources blamed for difficulty fighting fires


People carry belongings away from a fire in Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district, April 11, which the deputy director of the city’s firefighting unit, Um Chantha, said was the worst disaster he had witnessed in recent years.

Large plumes of black smoke have become a familiar feature of the Phnom Penh skyline as Cambodia reaches the peak of the hot season, with seven major fires wreaking havoc on the capital over a ten-day period. 

During the first four months of the year, 27 fires have each caused extensive damage to various parts of the city. This figure represents a significant increase on 2007, when only 37 fires were recorded for Phnom Penh during the entire 12-month period, said Um Chantha, deputy director of the municipality’s firefighting unit.

“House fires are often caused by the carelessness of homeowners who do not have any kind of defense against fire,” Chantha said.

“At hotels, big companies or enterprises, they have fire extinguishers but normal residents do not have these on hand.”

Chantha said the April 11 slum fire at Teuk Thla commune in Russey Keo district, in which 450 houses were razed and thousands left homeless, was the worst disaster he had witnessed in recent years.

His team was unable to access the area quickly or easily and this hindered their attempts to stop the blaze, he said, adding that limited resources for firefighters was a major problem.

“We have only eight operational fire trucks in our unit,” he said. “This is not enough; we need roughly 20 more fire trucks to help.” 

Ouch Sokhon, police chief of Chamkarmon district, said 44 houses burnt to the ground on April 16 in Sangkat Psah Demtkov.

The fire was caused by faulty wiring and although it destroyed the properties in their entirety, no one was seriously hurt.

One resident, who referred to himself only as Pheap, said his home was completely destroyed by the fire.

“I have nothing now,” he told the Post. “I lost all my property which I had saved for a long time to buy.”

According to Pheap, most of the houses in the area are wooden and were rented out to people from the provinces who are now working in Phnom Penh. “They do not understand how to prevent fires,” he said.

“I was always concerned about the risk of fire from neighboring houses as they didn’t seem to be careful,” he said. “Now finally the fire has happened and we have all lost everything.”

The blaze was the second fire to occur in the Sokhon neighborhood within a week following one at the Nagaworld hotel and casino complex – one of the country’s biggest hotels – on April 12. About 100 tourists were evacuated from Nagaworld after a fire broke out at a construction site inside the complex.

Local police chief Sokhorn said the ramshackle nature of many urban communities in Phnom Penh made it harder to stop fires.

Residents of the Psah Demtkov community had ignored municipal construction restrictions and expanded their houses at the expense of the road through the community, Sokhorn said, adding that the access lane on which the community is based was too narrow for fire engines to pass.

If the trucks had been able to access the area quickly, they would have been able to prevent the fire spreading through all the houses, Sokhorn said.

Firefighters eventually broke a brick wall around one property to get hoses through. Two hours later the fire was extinguished but the 120 families in the area – nearly all renters – were left homeless and sifting dejectedly through the smoldering remains of their former homes.