Inferno ravages historic town

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UPDATED: Lærdalsøyri in the mountains of Sogn og Fjordane, known for its unique concentration of historic wooden buildings, was evacuated and cordoned off on Sunday after an inferno that swept through the town during the night led to danger for explosions. Police also set up a “no-fly” zone over the town.

Fire swept through the historic town of Lærdalsøyri in the Norwegian mountains during the night. More than 30 buildings were reported destroyed by mid-morning on Sunday. PHOTO: Arne Veum / NTB Scanpix

Fire swept through the historic town of Lærdalsøyri in the Norwegian mountains during the night. More than 30 buildings were reported destroyed by mid-morning on Sunday. PHOTO: Arne Veum / NTB Scanpix

Lærdal was the scene of what officials called a “catastrophic” fire on Sunday that already had destroyed at least 30 homes and businesses by mid-morning. The town center was evacuated and firefighters were gearing to tear down some buildings in a desperate effort to keep the fire from spreading.

The fire was partially brought under control early Sunday morning, but firefighters remained worried about the danger of it flaring up again. They were especially worried that gas canisters belonging to a local building firm hit by the blaze would explode in the heat. They didn’t, and the fire finally was deemed under control Sunday afternoon.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), which was running special extra bulletins on the disaster Sunday morning, reported that the fire first broke out late Saturday night. Strong winds off the adjacent Lærdals Fjord made it impossible for firefighters to contain the blaze, even though all available crews plus crews from neighbouring communities were sent to battle it.

PICTURE SERIES: Lærdalsøyri, a cultural treasure before the blaze

Emergency crews were sent during the night from as far away as Bergen and Gjøvik, in addition to Voss, Førde and Fagernes, to help contain the flames that spread quickly in strong winds. Some witnesses described the scene as “unreal” and “beyond comprehension” as the town’s carefully preserved wooden houses were threatened by the inferno.

This is how Lærdalsøyri looked last summer, with its carefully restored wooden homes. Now many of them have been threatened or destroyed by the fire that swept through the mountain town during the night. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

This is how Lærdalsøyri looked last summer, with its carefully restored wooden homes. Now many of them have been threatened or destroyed by the fire that swept through the mountain town during the night. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

The situation was made worse by a local power failure and the loss of telephone communication in the town, which sits at the southern end of the fjord in a deep mountain valley that also was the site of a severe winter storm over the weekend.

Telecoms firm Telenor reported that all its base stations had burned down, and they called on residents to refrain from trying to use either mobile phones or land-based lines. Internet communication was also down, and Telenor officials were scrambling to ship in emergency replacement equipment.

More than 300 persons were sent to Lærdal Hospital because of injuries and smoke inhalation by mid-day Sunday, and more than 90 were admitted for treatment or sent to other hospitals in the area. There were no immediate reports of fatalities. Local hospital administrators were calling on all off-duty personnel to report for work to help meet the demand for medical help.

Crisis teams were in place and Lærdal Mayor Jan Geir Solheim, who was evacuated himself, called on residents “to take care of one another” as they all but watched their town being destroyed by flames.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg thanked all the emergency crews and volunteers who worked through the night to fight the blaze in Lærdal. “Our thoughts go to those who have lost their homes or are injured,” Solberg wrote on the social media site Twitter.

The town only has around 1,200 inhabitants but has a much bigger population in the summertime, when it long has attracted visitors and tour groups keen on wandering through the small streets lined with historic homes and carefully tended gardens.

Local officials set up emergency phone lines for survivors and those affected by the blaze in the nearby township of Aurland to help aid communications. Relatives of persons evacuated in Lærdal can call special lines set up at the Aurland City Hall: (+47) 57 63 18 30, 57 63 18 31, 57 63 18 33 and 57 63 29 00.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund