Delhi’s record of 150 deaths due to fires in 2019 is city’s highest toll in five years

Fatalities in blazes — be it in residential buildings, commercial structures or in vehicles — in the national capital were higher in 2019 than in any of the last five years, according to data by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).

A total of 150 persons died in fire-related incidents last year, up from 145 in 2018, showed NCRB data. The previous three years had reported relatively much fewer deaths at 64, 88 and 114, respectively.

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The death toll rose last year majorly due to two big fires – a factory fire in north Delhi’s Anaj Mandi that left 43 dead on December 8, and a blaze in central Delhi’s Hotel Arpit Palace that killed 17 on February 12.

The two massive blazes aside, 2019 had the highest number of fire incidents in Delhi in the last 10 years. “In 2019, we attended 943 fire calls of which 100 turned fatal. It is the highest number of calls we attended in the last decade. The previous highest was in 2012 when we attended 776 fire calls,” said Atul Garg, director, Delhi Fire Services.

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Also, in 2019, as many as 16 persons died in fires in cars or other vehicles. Among the incidents that hit headlines was the one on March 10, when a woman and her two minor children were charred when the car they were driving caught fire in east Delhi’s Anand Vihar.

The previous highest for vehicle fires in the last five years was in 2015 when 13 commuters died.

“We have noticed that most of these blazes occur as vehicles are either not maintained well, or they get poor quality CNG cylinders fitted in their vehicles,” Garg said.

The number of deaths in residential buildings (95) and in commercial buildings (22) were also the highest in the last five years. The previous highest deaths in residential buildings were in 2018 when 64 people were killed. For deaths in commercial structures, 2016 was the second worst year when seven persons had died.

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The Anaj Mandi and the Hotel Arpit Palace blazes were behind the year 2019 topping in the two indexes. “The Anaj Mandi fire was in an illegal factory operating out of a residential building,” said Garg.

As it turned out, both blazes were caused by short-circuit. “Our probe found short-circuit triggered the Anaj Mandi fire,” said a senior officer of Delhi Police’s crime branch, which probed the fire.

Garg too said the hotel fire was due to short-circuit in one air-conditioning system.

Unsurprisingly then, the number of deaths due to short-circuits (83) was not only the highest in the last five years, it was also the single biggest cause for fire-related fatalities in 2019.

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An electricity board official blamed the short-circuits on “overloading” by consumers, “faulty internal wiring”, and “absence of protective equipment” in old buildings.

While fire-related deaths in commercial buildings were mostly on account of the infamous hotel blaze, several other incidents led to 95 deaths in residential buildings.

Among such incidents last year was a fire in a four-storey residential building in Jamia Nagar that left six persons dead on August 6. Garg said this particular blaze, and other similar ones, pointed to the dangerous trend of installing electricity meters in close proximity to parking lots on the ground floor or the basement.

“If a fire breaks out in such meters, vehicles in the parking lot are quickly gutted and the stairs leading down to the parking lot are blocked by either flames or smoke, leading to deaths,” Garg said.

The fire department has written to the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission to have such meters shifted from parking lots, he said. In September, one of the discoms sent an advisory to its customers, asking telling them to ensure electric metres are not installed in parking or enclosed spaces.

While 2019 topped on many indexes, it was a year that saw fewer deaths (eight) in blazes in legal factories, which Garg said are usually equipped with fire-fighting equipment and safety exits. In 2018, 14 people died in factory fires. The number was 13 in the year before that.

This year has been easier for Delhi when it comes to fire incidents. Until August 31, there were a total of 226 fire calls of which eight were fatal. The number of people killed in those eight incidents wasn’t immediately provided. “The lockdown and closure of commercial buildings and factories during that period could lead to far fewer deaths this year, compared to past years,” Garg said.

SK Dheri, former DFS chief, said as long as building bylaws are bypassed and fire safety norms neglected, deaths will keep happening. “The Anaj Mandi deaths were due to illegal use of a residential building, the Hotel Arpit Palace deaths were because of disregard for safety rules. The situation will not improve unless exemplary punishments are handed out and large fines imposed by enforcement agencies,” he said.

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