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Fire in Haa
Haa: Fire destroys 25 houses, leaves 180 homeless
Report from February 2002
Twenty three houses in Yangthang village, Bji geog, Haa dzongkhag, were gutted by a fire which broke out around 4 pm afternoon.

According to a dzongkhag spokesman, the fire was put off at around 1:30 am next morning by the dzongkhag staff and members of the armed forces.

Yangthang village has a total of 47 households.


23 houses burnt in Haa
A fire wiped out more than half of Yangthang village in Bji geog on February 6, 2002 completely destroying 25 houses and leaving 26 families homeless. The fire started at about 5.00 pm towards one end of the village and quickly spread from house to house, fanned by a strong wind.

Three hours later, 180 out of the 361 people were homeless in the village which had 49 houses, clustered close together. "I don't know how the fire started," said 61-year old Tashi Dem, owner of the two-storey house where the fire began. Trying to save her valuables, she threw out the wrong box in panic and jumped out of a first floor window about five metres above the ground. She was the only one inside the house when it caught fire. Her five cows and one horse were killed in the fire.

Her son, Kaka, who had been playing archery in a neighbouring village along with most of the men from the village, rushed home to find the house reduced to rubble.

Kadi, 53, was one of four men outside the burning house who shouted to Tashi Dem to leave her belongings and jump from the window. "In about half an hour, nine houses were on fire," said a soot-covered Kadi still awake 24 hours after the fire. When the second house, about five metres away, caught fire, 26-year old Gaki tried to put off the fire. Dropping the futile attempt she ran back inside the house and saved her child and 83-year-old grandmother. Pempo, 52, was in the Haa town, about four kilometres away, when he was informed about the fire. He rushed back in time to see his house crumbling down. Rinchen Dem, with a family of 10, was lucky. The wind changed direction when the fire reached her house. Camped at a safe distance from the village, she is grateful for the "divine intervention" which saved her house and family.

About 200 army, police and IMTRAT personnel fought the fire which was controlled at about 8.00 pm. The cause of the fire and the value of the property lost are unknown. The Haa dzongda has established an investigation team to look into the fire which devastated one of the largest villages in Haa.


The aftermath
Punakha Fire Brigade
Ruins - singed and blackened earth-pounded walls - stand in mournful silence and the stench of charred wood and earth is heavy in the air a day after one of the worst fires in the memory of rural Bhutan. Soot-stained and tired-looking police fire fighters, soldiers and villagers are putting out the sinders still smouldering in little pockets.

Along the bank of the river, beside Yangthang village, children and the elderly remain huddled in temporary sheds braving the chill of the Haa winter, the shock still visible in their eyes.

These people lost everything: houses, food-grains, clothes, jewellery, even animals. Some have lost invaluable heirlooms that have been passed down for generations. "I can't believe it, I can't believe it," says Thinley Dem, her voice a trembling whisper. Tears trickle down her cheeks as she looks at the empty spot where she was born and had lived for 81 years.

Fourteen year old Sonam Kezang, a Class VIII student of Katsho Junior High School, recalls the moments during which the fire which roared like a mad dragon, women and children screamed hysterically, men shouted, cattle bellowed, and the wind howled with a shrillness she had never known before. "I don't think hell could be worse," said Sonam. While the younger people show signs of recovery, the elderly residents of the village are hardest hit, shattered by their losses. For many of them the village was their entire lives and their world. Some of the victims have not drunk even a drop of water. Some have not spoken a word. Some are unable to control their sobs. The scale of the tragedy is yet to be fully understood.


Kidu for fire victims

While the loss of property was tragic His Majesty the King expressed his relief that no one was killed or injured in the fire that destroyed more than half of Yangthang village. His Majesty, who visited Yangthang village after being informed about the fire, reminded the people that houses could be rebuilt but lives could not. His Majesty granted a semso (condolence) of Nu 50,000 to each of the 26 households rendered homeless by the fire. His Majesty the King instructed the dzongkhag authorities to provide immediate relief to the people, like temporary shelters, and free rations for three months.

His Majesty also commanded that the dzongkhag should clear the ruins and draw up a good housing scheme to avoid such disasters in the future and that the people should be given free timber for the re-construction of their houses. His Majesty the King said that the dzongkhag administration should do everything possible to help the people to recover from the tragedy and to re-build their lives. The victims of the fire who spoke to Kuensel said His Majesty's visit gave them hope, courage, and the stamina to continue their lives. "His Majesty's presence and words of compassion and encouragement have steeled our resolve to build a future again." said 75-year old Ap Jamyang. "I have no words to express my feelings," said Dago Dorji. "He is our true protector and the unfailing source of our welfare."

This article was contributed by KUENSEL, Bhutan's National Newspaper, 2002
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