Refugee camps on high fire alert

Following the recent fire that killed 39 refugees and destroyed the Ban Mae Surin refugee camp, people living in camps along the Thai Burma border are scared that their respective camps are firetraps.

As precautionary measure, refugee camp officials have put in place compulsory measures. Residents have been told that they have to fill plastic bags with sand and water to use in case a fire breaks out. Umphiem Mai refugee camp was ravaged by fire February 23 last year that destroyed over 500 houses while another 500 houses were dismantled to prevent the fire from spreading. There were over 4,400 refugees affected by the fire. Umpheim Mai is home to over 14,500 refugees and located 87km south of the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

The dry season is a factor why the fires rip through the bamboo walled and leafed roof camp houses.

Signs that the Umphiem Mai refugees camp residents are responding to the camp officials precautions are the bags of sand and water that hang alongside the two long bamboo poles, attached with hooks and flattened tin sheet outside houses. Camp officials say these are the most basic of fire fighting tools that are now compulsorily for every house in the camp.

Naw Htoo, a resident from Umpheim Mai refugee camp told Karen News that she has taken note of the camp officials compulsory requirements and has put in place what was asked of her.

“Our house has already prepared 20 bags each of water and sand. We also have the hook and ‘fire flapper poles’ as we were told to prepare by the camp officials. The camp officials announced that household who do not prepare these fire fighting tools would be fined up to 500 baht.”

Camp officials say it is important that residents take heed of the order and follow instruction to put fire-fighting tools around their homes. Having basic fire fighting tools ready is an initiative of the camp officials to help refugees tackle fires that break out in the camp. During last year’s fire at Umphiem camp, it took more than two hours for emergency fire trucks from the Phop Phra district to reach the camp.

Naw Htoo said that aside from the basic tools, camp officials are also taking other measures to try to keep the camp safe.

“There are official warnings announced through loud speakers four times a day. Camp residents are told to cook only after 4pm and kill all fires when they have finished cooking. We have also been advised not to leave our houses unattended.”

Both forest fires and fires from the kitchen are a major concern for camp residents. Naw Htoo worries that there is only a school building separating her bamboo house from the edge of the forest.

“We can see forest fires on the hill, half kilometer from my house. Security personnel have killed the fire several times already. We always have to be on the alert.”

Mae La refugee camp officials are also worried about fire safety. They have sent out warnings to camp residents to be on a high alert for fire. Despite all the warning, a fire broke out at Section 5 in Zone C in Mae La refugee camp on the night of 3rd April 2013. The fire destroyed the house where it started – fortunately before its spread to other houses neighbors stopped the fire.

Saw Lah Khi Moo, a camp resident who helped put out the fire said that the fire completely destroyed the house.

“The fire lasted for half an hour. We threw dust, sand and water to stop the fire. There were many people and luckily the house was separate from other houses, so we could stop the fire from spreading.”

It was not the first time the 45,000 residents in Mae La refugee camp had a lucky escape. April last year a fire destroyed a bible school and other buildings in the camp.

In an interview with the Karen Information Center, Saw Eh Kler, -secretary of the Mae La refugee camp committee said that measures have been put in place to prevent fire.

Saw Eh Kler said.

“By looking at the fire incidents in the past, we can see most of them occurred due to carelessness. Sometimes they occurred while the house owners were not in the house. We provide fire precaution education every year, people need to be careful about fires and have to fulfill their obligations regarding fire prevention.”

Saw Eh Kler also added that aside from providing fire precaution education, the committee has also told camp residents to prepare sand and water bags, fire hooks and ‘fire flappers’. Each of the camp’s sections were required to have reserved water tanks or pools and to have rotating fire security guards to be alert.

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