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Embers, aided by wind, burn a village

- 100 houses of straw & mud gutted in Malda, villagers lose stored grain

Malda, April 1: A smouldering heap of ash this morning is believed to have started a fire that gutted a village of around 100 straw-and-mud huts in Malda.

No one was injured. Most of the villagers were out in the fields working. A local panchayat member said the embers in the heap of ash led to a bigger blaze aided by wind on a dry hot day. The temperature recorded in Malda today was 36.9°C, two degrees above normal.

A big blaze starting from a small flame is not unheard of. A forest fire in Arizona last June started from a lightning strike and killed several firemen when the direction of the wind changed.

Fire officials said the spread of the blaze was quick because there were heaps of hay and straw in the village, which is 50km from Malda town. Also, in Malda the huts are clustered together making them vulnerable to catch flames aided by wind. Around 250 people reside in the village.

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 were working in fields and rushed back to put out the flames. They collected water from the nearby tube wells and ponds,” said a police source.

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

The Congress pradhan of the Mahanandatola gram panchayat, Sukesh Yadav, said a wind had helped the flames spread rapidly. “We have a stiff southerly wind blowing during this dry period and that helped the fire spread through the huts.”

At least 55 families’ homes and grain storehouses were burnt down. “The devastation could have been minimised if there was a fire station in Ratua that is hardly 6km from the village,” Yadav said. A Met official in Calcutta said fires can spread rapidly if the surrounding areas are dry. “Winds, cold or hot, also aid rapid spread of a blaze,” said the official.

The pradhan said villagers had told him that the fire had possibly broken out from smoulders from an ash heap outside the house of a farmer, Sanjoy Mondol. “The villagers have suffered huge losses as this is wheat harvesting time and most of them had stored food grain in their huts,” he 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 grown on a four-bigha plot. My household has four huts and the grain was stored there. I was harvesting the remaining crop when the fire broke out. I have lost the harvest as well as all household items,” he said.

“Harvested wheat was stored in the huts. Since the houses were close to each other, the fire spread fast,” said a fire brigade officer.

The fire fighters said when they had arrived at the spot, many of the houses were in flames.

“The villagers were trying to put out the blaze with water they had got from tube wells. We had a trying time as the nearest water source was about 500m away. We couldn’t bring water from the Fulahar river that was more than 2km away and did not have the equipment to pump the water from the river. Such fires are not uncommon in the dry season,” said the fire officer.

“Last year, there was a fire in a village in Harishchandrapur. Wheat in a stretch of farmland was also burnt in the dry weather in Gajole last year,” the fire service official said.

Nilanjan Tarafder, the block development officer of Ratua I, said a team of officials had been sent to the affected village to make a list of the victims.

Malda district magistrate Sharad Dwivedi said the administration would provide relief to the affected families. “We shall provide them with clothes, food grain, tarpaulin sheets and cooked food. We are yet to make an estimate of the loss. No one has been injured in the fire. We are doing everything possible to help the affected,” Dwivedi said.