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Updated: June 4, 2013 15:41 IST

Dog days and Chennai's slum fires

Asha Sridhar
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As of March 6 this year, the fire control room got 79 calls from hutments.

When R. Muthuarasi saw flames approaching her house in a slum at Jafferkhanpet, she had just enough time to grab her three children, one of whom was doing his home work, and flee to the nearest exit in panic.

“All their notebooks, birth certificates were charred,” she recalled.

Though no casualties were reported, the fire that broke out at her slum in July last year, according to official figures, destroyed 50 huts. The victims rebuilt their houses, bought second-hand furniture, utensils and applied for the lost documents, they said.

As of March 6 this year, the fire control room got 79 calls from hutments.

Of these, three were serious, which means there was either loss of life or property worth Rs. 50,000 and above. The calls are increasing. In 2011, of the 2836 fire calls received, 395 were hutment-related. This increased to 532 in 2012.

Fire Department officials say that in informal settlements, a blaze poses a unique challenge as proximity of the huts causes the fire to spread rapidly.

Poor accessibility and narrow lanes make it harder for the vehicles to enter and put out the fire. “The number of fire accidents increases between March and July, because the thatched roof becomes dry in the heat and fire spreads rapidly,” an official said.

While the official said the common causes were cigarette butts, gas cylinders, and short circuits, the use of tar sheets makes it harder to ward off the fumes. “Tar sheets do not catch fire easily, but once they do, it takes a long time to put it out,” the official said. Many opt for tar sheets because they last longer.

The Fire Service Department has identified close to 24 vulnerable areas around the city such as Pattinappakkam, MGR Nagar and Annai Sathya Nagar and pays special attention to them.

The government provides Rs. 5,000 to those who have completely lost their huts and Rs. 2,500 if their huts are partially damaged, an official said.

Five kg of rice, dhotis and saris are given, besides some immediate relief.

However, residents, like N. Shameem, demand permanent housing within the city.

“Our livelihoods are centred on this neighbourhood. We’ll lose our income if we move to the resettlement colonies on the outskirts of the city,” she said.

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