Facing Fire

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From 17 fire incidents in 1955 to 5000 incidents a year now, fire fighters remained on their toes as properties worth corers were consumed in collateral damage. Bilal Handoo meets some of the brave men who braved bullets and batons to douse the flames

Fire fighters dousing the flames near Srinagar.

Fire fighters dousing flames near Srinagar.   Pic: Bilal Bahadur

In May 1995, when the whole Charar-i-Sharief town in central Kashmir’s Budgam district was in ravaging flames, a fire fighter Bashir Ahmad Sanai along with his 18 men were fighting to douse the most toughest fire (they had seen) in their life. In the town (where people had abandoned their houses), the fierce encounter between Indian army and militants headed by major Mast Gul was making the task of fire fighters near to impossible. But men with water pipes kept countering flames for 48 hours till a barrage of bullets on their station compelled them to take refuge in a local hospital.

Nearly 18 years after the incident, I went to meet fire fighting squad of 19 men who risked their lives by battling fire in the summer of 1995.

In the main market of the town, a two storey building housing fire station (opposite to the shrine) survived flames in 1995. On the first floor of the building, a young man was playing with his mobile phone in an untidy room. He introduced himself as Mehraj Ud Din, 28, a new recruit in the fire department.

“Well I don’t think, you would find and meet all 19 of them right now,” I was informed by Din when asked about the fire fighters. “Most of them have retired by now, and rest have been transferred to other places. But yes, you can at least meet one among them. His name is Noor Mohammad. He is presently heading operations here.”

It was afternoon and Noor had left for offering prayers. Some 30 minutes later, a man sporting long beard, wearing white skull cap and Khan dress entered in the room. He was Noor Mohammad.

“So you have come to stir up old memories,” said Noor, spreading a big smile on his face. He folded his forehead as if focussing hard on something and then continued: “You see, we kept fighting fire for two long days amid shower of bullets. I have never seen more intense fire in my entire life as a fire fighter than one which reduced the town into debris in 1995.”

Bullet marks on walls of the room were overt. Most of these holes have been covered up with mud. These bullets were fired upon Noor and his colleagues during an encounter between forces and militants in a torched town.

After unsuccessfully attempting to douse wild fire for two days, fire fighters were asked by Indian army to vacate the building. They then took refuge in a local hospital.

“Most of us were left badly injured,” said Noor. “But we regret that we couldn’t save the holy shrine. But then, we tried our bit but were told that landmines have been planted around the shrine. So, we couldn’t move an inch closer to it.”

After three days of that devastating fire, some 1500 estimated residential houses were smoked up. The fire also engulfed the 700-year-old shrine of Sufi Saint Nund Reshi (RA) and Historical Khaniqah. The town has since been rehabilitated. New shrine and mosque have been constructed. But memories of that great conflagration live on.

Other than conflagration at Charar, a spree of fire incidents kept fire fighters on their toes during nineties.

“I remember we used to receive 20 to 30 calls from different parts of the valley in a single day during nineties,” said Mushtaq Khan, 45, a senior fire fighter from Srinagar. “Most of these incidents were triggered by forces to combat militants in any house or in any locality.”

In Kashmir, where Indian troops are armoured with Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), the rate of arsons have shown a steady rise since 1990s. And to fight the fire, Kashmir has turned into the toughest territory for fire fighters.

Flaming Figures

Fire fighters dousing the flames on the roof  of residential  house in Srinagar.

Fire fighters on roof of a residential house caught in fire in Srinagar.

The official data accessed by this reporter reveals that in 1955, merely 17 fires were recorded in the valley and the damage percentage stood at 6.10.

In 1990, when 57 fire stations were active in the valley, 1397 fires were recorded which involved a property worth Rs 19082.28 lakh. Rs 5845.82 lakhs worth property was reported damaged while Rs 13236. 46 lakhs worth property was saved by the fire fighting efforts. The damage percentage rose to 30.63.

In the subsequent years, the fire incidents saw a steeping rise in the valley.

Like in 1999, when 77 fire stations were active in the valley, 1438 fire incidents were reported. Subsequently, 3567 fire incidents were reported in 2007, which involved property worth Rs 125926.92 lakh in Kashmir. Out of which, Rs 6478.54 lakh property was damaged, while 119448.38 lakhs worth property was saved with lowest damage percentage of 5.14.

In 2010, 2632 fire incidents were recorded involving property worth Rs 35848.00. Out of which property worth Rs 5517.00 lakh and Rs 30331.00 were damaged and salvaged respectively with damage percentage of 15.38.

“Presently, we record about 5000 fire incidents in a year,” said Dr GA Bhat, Director General Fire and Emergency Services. “You see, all these figures highlight the fact as how bravely our boys fought the fire all these years to safeguard public property.” The situation all these years was abnormal, continued Dr Bhat, “but we left no stone unturned to be at the service of people whenever the need arises.”

Blazing Sopore

Another major fire incident that kept fire fighters on their toes was during Sopore Massacre. On the fateful morning of January 6, 1993 an armed JKLF militants showed up near Baba Yousuf Lane near Sopore. They attacked a platoon of Border Security Force (BSF) killing at least one. In retaliation, BSF men fired at local residents and set fire to local homes and businesses.

Eye witnesses claim that BSF men attacked a public transport killing the driver and at least 15 passengers. This didn’t stop there. Cars were attacked and set ablaze. Some residents were burnt alive as BSF set fire to their homes and businesses.

Twenty one years after the incident, I went to Sopore town in North Kashmir to meet the fire fighters who took part in rescue operation in 1993. In the backside of bustling main market of the town, a medieval building houses fire station.

Abdul Qayoom (name changed), 52, was one of the fire fighters who was leading from the front that day.

“I myself witness, how BSF began pushing locals into shops and houses and then shot. They later splashed kerosene over the bodies, and set the buildings on fire,” Qayoom recalled with painful expressions on his face. “As a fire fighter, I was supposed to rescue people and property, but even I and my colleagues faced a great resistance from BSF.”

When the fire finally was doused, official reports noted that 250 shops and 50 homes were burnt down. But locals claim as many as 450 buildings were gutted.

“It was a very tough situation,” said Qayoom. “On one side, wild flames had gripped the town and on other, paramilitary were in no mood to let the rescue operation to proceed. But we still chipped in with our rescue work and brought down some level of damage. And while doing that, many of our staff suffered life threatening injuries.”

Presently, when the situation is relatively different in the valley than what it used be during 90s, fire fighters fight fire triggered by leakage in LPG cylinders and short circuits these days. “You see, there is not much difference for us. We still swing into action when a panic call arrives,” said Qayoom. “But yes, scenes of fire are relatively less life threatening as they used to be. Like one in Sopore in 1993!”

Occupational Hazards

Facing fire is no kidding. It comes with a potential health hazard. The most common cause of on-duty fatalities for fire fighters is sudden cardiac death.

“Occupational exposures can significantly risk a life of a fire fighter,” said Dr Zubair Hassan, a Srinagar based physician.

For instance, Dr Hassan explains, carbon monoxide present in nearly all fire environments and hydrogen cyanide formed during the combustion of paper, cotton, and plastics interfere with the transport of oxygen in the body.

“Lack of oxygen in the body can then lead to heart injury,” said Dr Haasan. “In addition, chronic exposure to particulate matter in smoke is associated with blood vessel disorder. Besides, noise exposures may contribute to hypertension and possibly ischemic heart disease.”

Other factors associated with fire fighting include stress, heat stress, and heavy physical exertion.

Local Hindrance

Fire Fighters dousing flames in Dastgeer Sahib Shrine in Khanyar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Fire Fighters dousing flames in Dastgeer Sahib Shrine in Khanyar. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

In the summer of 2012, Khanyar in old Srinagar found itself in a sudden grip of panic. Flames were visible at Dastgeer Sahib Shrine. As the news broke out, Nazir Ahmad, a fire fighter from nearby Brari Nambal fire station rushed to the spot with his colleagues. Till the time they reached the spot, tempers of people had already soared.

“In panic, people themselves caught hold of water pipe, which delayed rescue operation” said Nazir, a man in his early thirties.

“We have been trained to deal with fire but common man who tries to be self saviour insult and abuse us whenever fire broke out. We are there for public, but the same public shouldn’t create hindrance for us.”

Noor Mohammad, who was a fresh fire fighter in 1995 when Charar-i-Sharief was blazing, is about to retire from services now. All these years, he kept rescuing life and property, and while doing so, he burnt himself countless times.

“We are saviours, but often perceived as tormentors when flames outdone us,” Noor said. “But then, we have learned to live in the line of fire!”

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