No Lærdal fire lessons learned

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Lærdal residents and politicians are angry that there’s been no movement on an investigation into Norway’s worst fires since World War II, five months after the government promised a broad-scale review of the January inferno. Any lessons from Lærdal would be timely for Norwegian fire authorities, who on Thursday night finally contained the last of several building and brush fires that have raged across Norway this week.

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 on January 19 this year. About 40 buildings were destroyed, many more were damaged and public amenities were cut off, but there’s been no independent review almost half a year later. PHOTO: Arne Veum / NTB Scanpix

Residents on the island of Skardsøya in Aure off Norway’s northwest coastline were given the all clear late Thursday to return to their homes and holiday cabins. About 85 people were evacuated earlier in the day when an extensive brushfire burned out of control. “The fire is under control,” Erik Willassen at the rescue headquarters told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) shortly before 9pm.

Police confirmed via Twitter shortly after 10pm that while the blaze was still burning on the mountain, and fire fighters would remain on duty overnight, they had control over the extent and spread of the fire. “It has been a bit of a critical situation this afternoon, it has been quite dramatic throughout considering that there has been the danger of it spreading,” said mayor Ingunn Golmen just before 11pm.

A second large fire, also in Møre og Romsdal county, burned around Måsvatnet lake in Halsa, while earlier on Thursday crews contained a fire that had burned out more than 1,000 acres along the coast of Nordland. A warehouse in Vågan on the archipelago of Lofoten also burned down on Thursday. Meanwhile, investigations continued into a blaze in Stavanger that destroyed two converted wooden warehouses in a historic area downtown on Wednesday.

Lessons to be learned
There were fears the Stavanger fire would spread to the city’s historic district that’s characterized by tightly-packed wooden houses dating from the 1800s and earlier, with memories fresh of how fire tore through the historic mountain town of Lærdalsøyri in January. About 40 buildings were razed in Lærdal, while many others were damaged by fire, smoke and water. But five months later, no lessons have been learned from the devastating blaze, despite the government promising a full investigation at the time.

“Now almost half a year has gone, and still nothing has happened,” the leader of the parliamentary justice committee, Labour’s Hadia Tajik, wrote in a letter to the Minister of Justice and Public Security, Anders Anundsen. “How long does it actually take to set up a commission?”

Tajik told NRK she was disappointed only narrow reviews had been conducted into the fire in Lærdal, and other major winter blazes at Frøya and Flatanger, which she claimed only looked at the efforts of civil defense forces and fire and rescue services.

“Certainly you only have the kind of small evaluations, which the justice minister has made up until now, so we are not seeing the whole scope of the rescue effort,” she said. “Then you see no cooperation between the police and fire departments, you don’t see the role of health workers or the volunteer rescue crews, who also do an important job.”

Anundsen confirmed through a communications advisor that the government would hold an external, independent review of the major fires in the Sogn and Trøndelag counties. But there was no information on how or when the investigation would be conducted. The advisor said Anundsen would respond to Tajik’s letter over the next week.

“I have an understanding that it can take some time to find out who will conduct that kind of evaluation, but it does not take half a year to find that out,” said Tajik.

Recycling danger
Fire authorities said many southern Norwegian towns with heritage wooden buildings are vulnerable to fire, and one pressing concern is the need for better processes around the storage of household recyclable materials. “We have become more environmentally aware and that’s good, but it also increases the danger of fire,” said Petter Vinje Svendsen, the leader of the Østre Agder fire service’s prevention department.

A fire disaster was narrowly avoided among old wooden houses in the southern town of Risør on Monday night, when passersby discovered a recycling bin on fire and kept the flames from spreading until it could be extinguished.  A 25-year-old woman was charged on Wednesday for starting several fires in bins outside homes around Risør on Monday night.

“It is not difficult to set fire to the waste bins,” Ibrahim Tas, one of the men who discovered the fire, told NRK. “There is no lock on them, nor any security against arson.”

“We have just done a large review with the city council and the fire department where we taken a look at the security,” said the mayor of Risør, Per Kristan Lunden. “Garbage along the walls of houses is a problem. I don’t think we have solved the problem, but I hope we can find better solutions than we have now.”

Svendsen said fire danger in household recycling bins was a major, widespread problem for heritage wooden building areas throughout southern Norway. “There is a risk which homeowners, municipalities and fire departments must take even more seriously,” he said. “One of the solutions may be to bury recycling sorting bins. Another solution may be to build individual garbage rooms.” Woodgate