Shimla, HP : why so many colonial buildings have been lost in the fire mishap in the past?

Heritage structure Gortan Castle on fire, Shimla.

For several unknown reasons the Summer capital of British India Shila  that had lots of fascinating  colonial buildings of splendor and  beauty with utilitarian value  became victims of the fury of fire God. Media reports say as many as 70  European style buildings were razed to the ground and turned into mounds of  trash and mud in the wake of fire accidents and this made a huge dent on the vestiges of colonial grandeur. To day one has to search for  classic  surviving colonial buildings in a  maze of concrete jungle that has sprung up all over the city and  spoiled the serene ambiance  of this popular hill resort. The devastation was so bad none of the buildings survived the inferno primarily because they were made mostly of wood. Media reports say 50 heritage buildings were lost in the unexpected fire accidents in the last 144 years.

A combination of many factors - such as  electrical short circuit. bursting of stove or gas cylinder. negligence by humans, improper storage and use of flammable items, etc  may be the reasons for the loss of heritage building whose redemption or restoration is just impossible. Nor can such fully damaged or partially structures  be rebuilt with matching architectural majesty and finessesse, despite using available modern technology.  Providing  just with fire extinguishers  here and there alone in the buildings - prone to fire hazard  can never solve the problem. They may help us put out small fires in the office, hotels, etc and may give you temporary relief. What about towering inferno? 

Reasons for the  fire accidents in colonial buildings:

Wooden frame work: 

In Shimla and other hill stations, Invariably the British architects like Henry Irwin (his work included the Catholic church,  Viceregal lodge, Gaiety theater, etc) inorder to make building rich in European style  with better aesthetics designed them  with slanting roofs, gables, turrets, etc and usd plenty of quality wood available on the hill.  They never used the cast iron or wrought iron beams, cross beams or columns to support the buildings.  Most of the colonial buildings were built from wood..

Many materials in our environment, including wood products, burn “indirectly”but,  the culprit is combustion that takes place as a reaction between oxygen and the gases released from a material.  The moisture content of wood has an effect on ignition mainly as a heat sink. Heating-up of the water and especially its vaporization consumes heat energy further,  moisture increases the thermal inertia of the material.  When heated, wood undergoes thermal degradation and combustion to produce gases, vapours, tars and char.  To understand and alter the fire behaviour of wood, it is necessary to know  as much detail as possible about its processes of decomposition.

Lack of modern fire fighting equipments:

Most of the building  lack  advanced fire fighting equipments. No smoke detection sensors or sprinkler alarm system that would give prior warning and cut down the loss of many structures and deaths or injuries. 

The data makes clear is that fire sprinklers are amazingly effective, though almost all residential construction in the US (even multifamily) is unsprinklered.  Hall 2010 found that sprinklers reduced fire damage as much as by 40-70%. NFPA found that 87% of fires, 90% of building damage, and 98% of deaths, occurred in buildings without sprinklers.  Adding a sprinkler to a building drops the death rate by fire by over 80%. 

The government or private owners of colonial heritage buildings could  have provided them with sprinklers or smoke alarms way back in the early 1960s. This would have saved  lots of buildings from total ruin.


Functional  Fire Hydrants:

A fire hydrant  also known as a fire plug or johnny pump,  is a pipe that allows water to flow from a water main with the control of a valve in order to put out a fire. It is quite useful for the firemen to draw water from it and put out the fire.  Fire Hydrants play a key role during fire mishaps. I understand many hill stations like  Ooty and Kodaikanal, Yercaud near Salem city  in Tamil nadu and Darjeeling and many others in HP  lack  adequate functional fire hydrants.In the hill stations across  adequate FHs  at specific places are a necessity.   

In the case of fire accident at the Grand hotel in 2019, the firefighters were unable to draw water from the nearby FH - Fire hydrant. Reason: There was not enough water pressure in the FH.

Lack of annual maintenance:

There was no periodic maintenance of the buildings -both in the private as well as government-owned buildings. 

Periodic checking of electrical system:

When dealing with buildings with excess wooden frame work, it is a must to check  the electrical system of the entire buildings every six months or so. In some of the buildings short-circuit was the primary reason for the start of the fire as in the case of Gorton castle fire accident several years ago. 

Paint job: 

Most paints are either oil-based or water-based. Because they contain a high level of solvents, oil-based paints are considered flammable because of oil, pigment, resin, and a binder, which is a solvent similar to a paint thinner. 

The building contractors dealing with heritage wooden buildings need to consult the heritage engineers or conservationists before embarking on a project. Without consulting  them many of the contractors used excessive paint jon the old wooden frames wrongly assuming that additional coatings of paint on the wood would retard the termite attack, besides improving the longevity of the buildings.  Many modern paints use inflammable petroleum based chemicals to impart better look rather than safety. So excessive paint work has to be cut down.   

In the buildings -Gorton Castle and Minto Court  Wooden  structures  were painted several times with several  coatings. According to   Tikender Singh Panwar, the Mayor of Shimla ''This is nothing but sitting on an oil field.''  In fact it is something like closely  holding matchstick into a godown full of tider box.

In the case of Minto Court (named after Viceroy Lord Minto) - a two story Tudor styled half timbered structure with - all-wooden frames and shingled eaves  it was completely gutted with all records within a few hours Saturday night. Inflammable paint made the fire spread quickly. 

Road  Accessibility

Because of narrow lanes, bylane, and  roads near  the colonial buildings  the firefighters with a big truck are unable to to get to the spot.  For emergency purposes, such buildings should be made accessible  to the fire service staff. 

Other factors are lack of interest in old buildings and their heritage value,  official apathy, reels of red tape in various govt. offices  and lethargic attitude of the city councilors or members  who  fail to take action to save the  state recognized  heritage structures for the posterity.