Lessons Learned from Island Inferno

Source: Khmer Times / Monday, 09 May 2016 by Jonathan Cox and Pav Suy

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Bystanders watch as fire engulfs the roof of Buffalo Restaurant on Koh Rong on Sunday. The island’s residents are discussing ways to prevent fires in the future. Mert Eren

In the aftermath of a blaze that destroyed much of Buffalo Restaurant and a neighboring Speed Ferry office on Koh Rong’s Tui Beach on Sunday evening, business owners and residents of the resort island are discussing how to prevent disasters like this in the future.
Mert Eren, manager of the Coco Bungalow Resort, was one of the amateur firefighters who helped fight the blaze on Sunday afternoon. He said he was eating dinner at a nearby pier when he noticed smoke coming from the thatch roof of Buffalo Restaurant’s kitchen. Flames soon began to climb over the roof of the building.
“When I saw it was a fire, I ran over there and we collected a fire team,” Mr. Eren said.
A group of more than 100 Koh Rong locals battled the fire for two hours. At first they fought the blaze with fire extinguishers, but most of the extinguishers had already been used to fight two recent forest fires in late March and early April.
As they ran out of fire extinguishers, the firefighters borrowed two pumps from locally-owned businesses along the beachfront and pumped seawater through hoses to control the blaze.
By aiming the hose through a hole in the kitchen wall, the firefighters kept the fire from reaching the kitchen’s gas canisters. Some volunteers were able to move bottles of alcohol from the bar before the fire reached them and they also moved a stack of gas canisters from the outside of the restaurant.
“Nothing exploded. It was so lucky,” said Mr. Eren.
Within an hour, Mr. Eren said, the fire was “between 70 and 80 percent controlled,” though the brigade spent another hour dousing the site. Photos taken after the smoke cleared show that the restaurant’s kitchen was completely destroyed, as was a neighboring Speed Ferry office, but the seating area of the restaurant escaped mostly unscathed.
Thanks to the efforts of the amateur firefighters, the blaze was stopped before reaching Koh Rong Dive Center, where highly explosive canisters of oxygen are kept.
The cause of the fire is still unknown. It is suspected that faulty electrical wiring could have caused a spark, though the stone pizza oven could also have started the blaze, with witnesses saying the flue was too long to keep it properly ventilated.
“The cause of the fire is being investigated by experts,” said Kol Phally, deputy police chief of Preah Sihanouk province. It is also unclear when the fire started, with some witnesses reporting that it began at 2pm, while Mr. Phally said it started about 5pm.
The Turkish owner of the restaurant was outside the country and could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Fire is a major threat to businesses and homes on Koh Rong. Most of the restaurants and bungalows that line Tui Beach are highly flammable wooden structures with plywood roofs covered in thatch. “When we make the buildings we use dry leaves [as thatch] to protect from rain or sun, but these leaves burn very quickly,” Mr. Eren said.
With a months-long drought increasing the risk that one of these buildings will catch fire, the island’s amateur firefighters are planning ways to prevent future blazes.
“We’re talking about putting a pump on a boat with a long hose, so that if we need to we can use the sea water,” Mr. Eren said. “We should find a solution on Koh Rong, but we should not appeal to the government. If we find a solution ourselves we can do it more quickly.”

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Smoke billows from the roof above Buffalo Restaurant’s kitchen, where Sunday’s blaze started. The cause of the fire is still unknown. Mert Eren

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