The terrifying Chawkbazar fire that cut short the lives of around 70 people was a disaster waiting to happen. According to investigations, the presence of an inordinate quantity of flammable materials—mainly chemicals and plastic—resulted in the spread and severity of the fire. Nine years ago, a similar fire in Nimtoli, Old Dhaka claimed the lives of 124 individuals. These were the most horrendous incidents that received a lot of news coverage because of the high number of casualties. But Old Dhaka is not new to fire incidents. As many as 468 fire incidents took place last year in Old Dhaka's Lalbagh, Hazaribagh, Sadarghat and Siddique Bazar where there are 500 chemical warehouses and factories. Yet, despite such a terrible track record of fires, nothing has been done to reduce the risks.
Most importantly, the owners of these chemical and plastic warehouses and factories are not ready to accept the obvious risk that the existence of such large quantities of flammable materials inside a congested residential area poses. The fire service department's recommendations to relocate chemical stores and shops from the residential areas to a safer place have gone unheeded. The fire service survey also found that poor building structures, narrow roads, negligible fire safety measures and the lack of natural sources of water make it even more challenging for firefighters to control the flames.
It is high time that the community of Old Dhaka—that includes both residents and owners of chemicals and other flammable products—work with the fire service to make their neighbourhoods free from fire hazards. Old Dhaka has many really old buildings that need to be preserved and repaired both for safety purposes and as heritage sites. Conservation and proper maintenance of these buildings must be taken up by the government. A comprehensive plan for Old Dhaka must also be designed to ensure that catastrophes like the Chawkbazar and Nimtoli fires never happen again.