Phnom Penh’s municipal fire department police chief on Sunday denied allegations that firefighters demanded payment from residents before agreeing to extinguish a fire in Meanchey district on Friday that destroyed nearly 180 homes.
Responding to criticism from residents who claimed firefighters deliberately allowed houses to burn, Suon Sopheak said fire trucks were delayed due to difficulty getting through the narrow streets and massive crowds that gathered to watch the blaze on the bank of the Bassac river near the Monivong Bridge. No one was injured or killed.
“The victims blame us all the time,” Suon Sopheak said. “Our police did not take any money.”
The fire department had dispatched all six of its fire trucks and called the Ministry of Interior and private petrol company Sokimex for additional vehicles, which fought the flames throughout the afternoon, Suon Sopheak said.
“We do the best for the people,” he said.
The fire, which leveled the Chbar Ampov slums stretching nearly half a kilometer along the river, began around 3:30 pm and was extinguished by evening, according to witnesses and police. The cause of the blaze has not yet been determined.
Amid the ashes Sunday, some residents said firefighters arrived soon after the fire began but did not start putting it out until homeowners paid them.
Veng Kry, a 35-year-old resident, said he saw firefighters haggling for more than $1,000 from some people living in the few large, two- and three-story buildings that remained intact.
Veng Kry’s neighbor Nov Ol, 53, pointed to one building that appeared to have been untouched by the fire, though all the houses surrounding it were reduced to ashes.
Residents in that building had paid $3,000 to firefighters to keep it protected, Nov Ol claimed.
“We are angry at the firefighters but we have no idea to criticize them,” Veng Kry added.
Loa Sokha, a 48-year-old resident of one of the buildings that survived the inferno, said firefighters had not demanded money from anyone. But, she said, she gave them some “gifts of gratitude,” including some water and food.
Though municipal authorities have ordered the relocation of families after several previous fires in the city, the residents of Chbar Ampov—some of whom are squatters—will be allowed to rebuild their homes in the same area, said Em Sokleang, deputy governor of Meanchey district.
“The municipality will not move the residents,” he said.
He added the families would receive donations from a number of sources including Khan Chantol, Senate President Chea Sim’s advisor; Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany; the municipality; and the Royal Palace, as well as community groups.
Most of the families claim the fire started in one of two houses, one of which had also been a motorbike repair shop, said So Phan, 58, whose house burned down. The residents of those houses were not available for comment Sunday.
So Phan said he plans to rebuild his home, but it will likely be much smaller than the $4,000 two-story structure he had built here nearly 15 years ago.
Kicking away charred bits of wood to make a path through what used to be the entrance to his house, So Phan said he and his family will stay nearby under a aluminum-roofed shelter until they can rebuild.
Sprouting up around the blackened area, strips of tarpaulin stretched on wooden poles sheltered many of the 200 families who lost their homes to the blaze.
“Our happiness was burned down so we are very sorry,” So Phan said.