A fire destroyed 97 houses in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district early Monday morning, with authorities blaming an unattended candle from a resident’s Lunar New Year celebration for sparking the blaze.
The fire swept through the tightly packed houses of the predominantly Vietnamese neighborhood in Chak Angre Krom commune’s Tuol Roka village at around midnight on Sunday, with firefighters taking until 4 a.m. to get the blaze under control, said village chief Hor Yiev.
“According to our inspection we found 97 houses were destroyed, but only 17 of these belonged to ethnic Khmer,” he said at the scene on Monday morning as young men rushed around directing fire hoses at the still smoldering remains.
Mr. Yiev said there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries, adding that authorities believed the fire was caused by a candle being blown over by Sunday night’s strong winds.
He said efforts to extinguish the flames had been hampered by a narrow access road that made it difficult for trucks to reach the fire, a problem confirmed by Phnom Penh municipal fire department chief Prum Yorth.
“We found it very hard to intervene in this incident because the access road is so small, so we had to park the trucks on National Road 2 and carry the hoses more than 100 meters before they could be used,” he said.
Mr. Yorth said that the first of 21 fire trucks arrived 20 minutes after being alerted by local authorities. Despite the intervention, which also involved two firefighting boats, he estimated that $970,000 worth of damage had been caused.
Ly Bunhiep, the local representative of the Khmer-Vietnamese Association, said the fire had spread too quickly for people to save their belongings.
“I told everyone to escape and take all their children away from the area of the fire,” he said in front of his destroyed house.
The remains of motorbike-taxi driver Chea Meng Cheang’s home of 11 years, a simple two-story house that had its metal roof left lying in twisted shards on the ground, were still smoldering on Monday morning.
“I heard children yelling ‘A fire is burning down the houses!’ so I just grabbed a small bundle of things near me and ran to my other son’s house,” he said.
“When I returned here, the fire had reached our house and it was too late,” he said. “I will clean the rubble today, and find some plastic sheeting to make a tent for tonight.”
While local shopkeepers had distributed bottled water, candy and children’s clothing to their neighbors Monday morning, many residents said they were still awaiting official support.
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that he believed the Cambodian Red Cross would soon respond to the crisis, although he did not have details on what kind of help would be offered.
He said fires linked to Lunar New Year celebrations were becoming a serious public safety issue, noting the widespread practice of lighting candles and incense sticks for the holiday.
In addition to banning fireworks and firecrackers, and informing people of the dangers, he said that 40 fire trucks had been placed on alert over the weekend.
Mr. Yorth, the municipal fire chief, said that five fires caused by Lunar New Year flames had been reported over the weekend, including one at the Khmer-Soviet Hospital, where a candle in the staff room led to the destruction of six rooms.
“Hospital staff celebrating Chinese-Vietnamese New Year used a candle and incense sticks, but they did not put them out before locking the door and leaving the room,” he said.