The firestorm that swept through a mountain town in western Norway over the weekend was “deeply tragic,” according to top state officials, but no lives were lost and a majority of the old wooden homes in its most historic district were spared. As investigators began probing the ruins to find the cause of the blaze and how it spread so quickly, both the prime minister and the justice minister were set to visit the devastated town of Lærdalsøyri in the county of Sogn og Fjordane on Monday.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg was among those praising the emergency reaction and the manner in which town residents immediately began rescuing neighbours and helping through the night after the fire first broke out around 11pm on Saturday. It took firefighters 18 hours to get it under control, as strong winds fanned the flames and the fire literally seemed to jump from building to building.
Investigators confirmed that the first fire started in a house on the street known as Kyrkjeteigen, not Kyrkjegata (Church Street) as police initially reported. “We know where it started, but we don’t know the reason,” Nils Erik Eggen, press spokesman for the Sogn og Fjordane Police District, told reporters.
Regional and local fire and police crews requested and immediately received assistance from the national crime unit Kripos, which Eggen said has the technical expertise and equipment needed to track the cause and course of the blaze. Kripos staff were on the way to Lærdal “and will start the technical investigations as soon as it’s possible to start probing the ruins,” Eggen said.
Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that some power was restored to the town by Monday morning, and Telenor was able to restore some mobile communication as well. Its main plant in Lærdalsøyri was among the buildings destroyed by the fire, along with 11 mobile masts in the town. The loss of power, communications and even, at one point, water and water pressure in the town made the daunting job of battling the blaze even more difficult.
More than 100 firefighters plus volunteers from the surrounding area and beyond worked through the night and all day Sunday, while local residents, even many who lost their own homes, joined in. One woman, a nursing assistant who fled her home with her husband and six children, immediately went to work at the local hospital, which was flooded with hundreds of residents needing treatment for injuries and smoke inhalation.
Evacuated to Aurdal
Witnesses described how their hoses burned up when they tried to attach them to water faucets. Houses were ignited in a manner of minutes, while the wind sent burning embers flying through their air. Those that landed on other houses ignited them as well. One firefighter reported that the skies seemed to be burning over the entire town.
Many of the evacuated residents and those who lost their homes and all they own were taken to a hotel in Aurdal, the nearest town on the other side of the mountains west of Leirdalsøyri. Many were surprisingly calm but said they hadn’t fully grasped what happened or begun to think about the future. Only a few had time to grab any possessions or clothes, but donations were already pouring in.
Jørn Holme, who as Riksantikvaren is Norway’s chief historic preservationist, was among those calling the fire “deeply tragic” on both a human and material scale. “First and foremost the fire has hit so many families and individuals who are injured or have lost their homes,” Holme said. “It’s also tragic for our cultural heritage. The wooden houses in Lærdalsøyri are among the most important in Norway, in line with those in Røros, Bergen and Gamle Stavanger.”
One house from 1840 that was under preservation orders was among those that burned to the ground, along with several others of historic significance. The majority of the roughly 160 historic buildings in Lærdalsøyri, though, were said to still be standing. In all, 23 buildings burned down including 16 homes. The fire was the worst in Norway for 45 years, since an inferno in Tromsø destroyed 24 buildings and wharves in 1969.