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A year’s grain and 100 huts destroyed in blaze

Malda, April 1: Around 100 straw-and-mud huts were today gutted in a fire that spread quickly in the strong wind on a hot and dry day in Malda, razing to the ground almost all houses in a village and destroying a year’s harvest of wheat.

Panchayat sources said a smouldering heap of embers could have sparked the blaze, in which nobody was injured as most villagers were working in the fields. The maximum temperature recorded in Malda today was 36.9C, two degrees above normal.

Fire officials said the blaze spread fast because there were heaps of hay and straw in Balarampur village, 50km from Malda town. Around 250 people live in the village. District officials said that like in several other villages in Malda, huts were clustered together in Balarampur, which helped the fire to spread swiftly.

Police said the fire started around 9.30am. “There were mostly women in the huts and they all came out when they realised a fire had started. The men, who were working in the fields, rushed back to put out the flames. They collected water from nearby tube wells and ponds,” a police source said.

Two fire engines — one from Chanchal, 30km from Balarampur, and the other from Harishchandrapur, 50km from the village — reached the spot two hours after the blaze started. The fire was brought under control by 4pm.

The Congress pradhan of the Mahanandatala gram panchayat, Sukesh Yadav, said the wind had helped the flames to spread rapidly. “A strong southerly wind blows this time of the year,” he said. A Met official in Calcutta said both hot and cold winds aided in spreading a blaze.

The houses of at least 55 families were destroyed. Several families have built more than one hut in Balarampur to store grains.

“The damage could have been minimised had there been a fire station in Ratua, which is 6km from the village,” Yadav said.

The panchayat pradhan said Balarampur residents had told him that smoulders from an ash heap outside the house of a farmer could be the source of the blaze. “The villagers have suffered huge losses as they had stored wheat in their huts,” Yadav said.

Arindam Mondol, a farmer who had grown wheat on four bighas, said he had lost nearly his entire yield. “I had just harvested most of the wheat. I had stored the grains in the four huts I own,” he said.

Fire fighters said that when they arrived at Balarampur, many of the houses were in flames.

“The villagers were trying to put out the blaze with water from tube wells. We had a trying time as the nearest water source is around 500m away. We couldn’t bring water from the Fulahar river, 2km away, as we did not have the equipment to pump water from it. Such fires are not uncommon in the dry season,” a fire official said.

“Last year, there was a fire in a village in Harishchandrapur. Wheat on a stretch of farmland was burnt in the dry weather in Gajole last year,” he added.

Nilanjan Tarafder, the block development officer of Ratua I, said a team of officials had been sent to Balarampur to draw up a list of those whose huts had been gutted.

Malda district magistrate Sharad Dwivedi said the administration would provide relief to the affected families.

“We shall provide them clothes, food grain, tarpaulin sheets and cooked food. We are yet to estimate the loss. No one was injured in the fire. We are doing everything possible to help those affected,” he said.