Royals visit ‘warzone’ Lærdal

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King Harald and Queen Sonja toured the fire-ravaged town of Lærdalsøyri on Thursday, where authorities have now listed 40 buildings as destroyed. Queen Sonja described the scene as being “like a warzone,” while King Harald said it was a miracle no one died in the blaze.

Queen Sonja (far left) and King Harald (center, in blue down jacket) visited the fire-ravaged town of Lærdalsøyri, to see the damage first-hand and lend support to residents. The king has fished for salmon in the area for years.  PHOTO: kongehuset.no/NTB Scanpix

Queen Sonja (far left) and King Harald (center, in blue down jacket and cap) visited the fire-ravaged town of Lærdalsøyri on Thursday, to see the damage first-hand and lend support to residents. The king has fished for salmon in the area for years. PHOTO: kongehuset.no/NTB Scanpix

The royal couple met with families who lost everything in the fires, and congratulated the various agencies and the community on cooperating throughout the ordeal. “They made the best of it, and that is one of the reasons why no lives were lost,” said King Harald. “It’s impressive to hear of the unity that was here, and remains in Lærdal.”

Queen Sonja said she was touched by the way neighbouring counties had rallied to help the historic mountain town, saying it’s important for small communities to band together. “I am impressed by those affected,” she told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “They showed courage and determination to stand and get things going again.”

Fire Chief Gaute Johnsgaard said the royal support was very important for those involved in the fire effort. The king has a close relationship with Lærdal, and as a keen salmon fisherman, often makes unofficial visits to the area. “To experience this is certainly strong for him too,” said Johnsgaard. “The royal couple has given us praise, and we must take that to heart. That applies not only to those of us in the fire service, but for everyone who has worked together. We all did a good job and managed to extinguish the fire.”

Damage in the millions
About 40 buildings were destroyed when fire swept through the village’s tightly-packed wooden buildings on Saturday night. Three heritage-listed buildings and 17 homes were among those destroyed in Norway’s worst fire disaster since World War II. Up to 50 people have been left homeless. Finance Norway (Finans Norge), the country’s insurance industry association estimated the preliminary damage bill at NOK 200 million (USD 32.7 million), but said it will take much more time before the extent of the destruction is known.

By Wednesday police had identified the house where the fire broke out, and were focusing both tactical and technical investigations there. Police told NRK there were people home at the time, but could not say if they or others were the first to report the blaze. Local sergeant Åge Løseth said the cause of the fire is still unknown, and experts are working to see if an electrical fault was to blame. “That’s standard in almost all house fires,” said Løseth. “Electrical reasons can often cause fire. It’s very important for us to establish or dismiss possible causes.”

Fire safety surveys were finished by Wednesday night, meaning residents could begin the long cleanup task and insurance companies could arrive to assess the damage.

Communications down
Authorities revealed on Wednesday that a fiber cable damaged in the Lærdal fire cut contact with 40 road tunnels in the Sogn and Fjordane region, after the Telenor exchange burned down. Emergency phones cut out in two tunnels. The whole region lost mobile phone coverage, many landlines were cut and the analog emergency network failed, drastically hampering communication between rescue crews.

The destruction showed how vulnerable modern communication networks can be in a major fire, reported NRK. Telenor’s coverage director Bjørn Amundsen said it’s impossible protect the network in large-scale disasters like the Lærdal blaze. “In a catastrophe like this, where dozens of houses burn down, you can never manage to guard against,” he explained. “I don’t think it’s realistic to say we should have handled it much better than we have done.” The government is working on a nation-wide digital emergency network, and said it’s on schedule to be completed next year.

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate