BEIRUT: It has been one week since the Karout Grand Stores warehouse in Hadath burned down, yet an acrid smell still hangs in the air, even several meters from the site.
The 150-meter-long structure is burned out from end to end. Inside, everything is black and a crust of charred debris covers the floor. Discarded fire extinguishers slowly sink into this horrible dirt. You can enter through any doorway and exit through a hole that someone blasted in the wall.
It took firefighters four days to put out the stubborn blaze, which appeared to be under control before it reignited on the second day. Civil Defense chief Raymond Khattar described it as “one of the most difficult fires we have ever encountered.”
“I hope people learn from me, from [the burning of my property]. I hope the lessons don’t go to waste,” said Atouf Karout, owner of Karout Grand Stores.
The Karout fire was one of a recent spate of blazes across Lebanon that has drawn attention to the country’s capacity, or lack thereof, to prevent future conflagrations and promote fire safety.
On May 28, a blaze destroyed 60 percent of posh Beirut nightclub SkyBar. One month before that, two firefighters died fighting a blaze in a Mar Elias printing shop, located in the basement of a 12-story residential building.
Fires in early June also killed and displaced refugees at the Ain al- Hilweh camp in Sidon and at camps in Al-Marj in the Bekaa Valley and Minyeh in north Lebanon.
An anonymous source at the Civil Defense told The Daily Star that fires are occurring at an average pace, with only 5 percent fewer blazes in 2015 than last year.
As things stand, it is up to residents to take the initiative to apply the mandates of the country’s fire code. The private sector can also encourage building owners to take precautions.
In Karout’s case, the Grand Stores owner had equipped his warehouse with fire extinguishers and 120 sprinklers, which operated as they were supposed to, he said. These precautions were required by Karout’s fire insurance policy, and they were also common sense.
But not all building owners are so diligent, said Youssef Azzam, a Lebanese architect, urban planner and president of the country’s Safe Buildings Alliance, an NGO.
“There is a gap between what’s on paper and what has been implemented,” Azzam said.
Lebanon’s building code, most recently amended in 2004, requires new construction safeguards against fires, earthquakes and collapse risks.
Designs must incorporate measures to control the spread of a fire, channel smoke out of the building and allow occupants to escape quickly. The code also mandates that builders use fire-resistant materials and install fire alarms and retardant systems.
But authorities do not appear to exercise much oversight. “Nothing here requires you to follow the regulations,” said Haidar Karout, Atouf’s brother and co-owner of Grand Stores. “From 1989, not once has the government made an inspection.”
“There should be some formal or public agency with engineers or architects that can read the papers or the map and see if they are implemented or not,” Azzam said.
The responsibility instead falls to the country’s Order of Engineers and Architects. By law, an owner must have an engineer registered with the Order to verify that plans are up to code before beginning construction.
The authorities do not conduct regular inspections after this pre-start check. “Building in Lebanon, you get a property title, but after that no one will knock on your door and ask you about the situation of your building,” Azzam said.
Unless, that is, if an owner binds him or herself through a private contract, for example, by purchasing fire insurance or seeking industry accreditation. Karout’s insurers had inspected his warehouse one month before the fire. It passed, he said.
A sales officer at Arope Insurance told The Daily Star that the company would only sell fire insurance to owners who can prove code compliance. “We ask for prevention,” said the officer, who asked that her name be withheld because she was not authorized to speak to the media. “We send a surveyor, he does a report and recommendation, and [we] ask for the client to implement the recommendations.”
Contract owners must pass inspections annually, she added.
Factories are required by law to purchase fire insurance, so it is reasonable to expect that those facilities operating legitimately receive regular inspections.
But apparently only hospitals are obligated by law to meet fire safety standards, in order to maintain Health Ministry accreditation.
Lebanon’s haphazard urban development has also introduced a more general fire hazard: There is no law requiring warehouses or factories, which are prone to conflagration, to be far from residences. The Karout warehouse stands on its own block – according to Haidar, it was the first building constructed in the neighborhood, in 1964 – but it is surrounded by tenements, many with mechanics’ shops at the ground level. Pointing to shops around him, Haidar Karout said, “Every business you see is an active volcano.”
The country’s Civil Defense agrees. “Warehouses should have their own specialized areas, and it is our wish that new laws will organize these establishments in the future,” it told The Daily Star in a statement.
But besides passive safeguards, fire safety also requires knowledge, care and action. Children must know not to play with matches or stovetops and adults not to throw lit cigarettes in dry brush or trash.
A firefighter at a Beirut barracks showed The Daily Star how to handle a fire extinguisher. Pretending a fire was at the foot of his bunk, he stood a meter and a half away and planted his feet so that his chest would not directly face the flames. He said some may not feel so brave, and they would stand farther, up to 3 meters. He removed the safety pin from the handle by pulling hard at it, so as to break the plastic ring. With one hand, the firefighter carried the extinguisher by the squeeze trigger, and with the other he aimed the nozzle at the base of the fire so as to extinguish it. Now he could squeeze and spray. But he warned against wasting retardant at the top of the flames, where it would do no good.
This firefighter belongs to the Training Department at the country’s Civil Defense, which is tasked with teaching citizens about fire safety, and its demonstrations reach about 22,000 Lebanese a year, according to internal statistics. But no law mandates the lessons, so the Civil Defense can only provide them upon request. According to the directorate, it trains students and staff in public and private schools, universities, businesses, tourism institutions, municipalities and hospitals.
“It is also our wish [that] these courses be mandatory; this way we can spread awareness among all the Lebanese citizens,” the Civil Defense told The Daily Star in a statement.
Sagesse High School, a private institution in Metn, has the Civil Defense put on a fire safety demonstration every year. The school’s Communications Department confirmed that lessons are not part of the Lebanese curriculum; instead, they are required to maintain accreditation in the United States. The school has extinguishers, but no sprinklers or external fire escapes. It commits to an inspection every year and maintains its insurance.
Everyone should also know that number to dial in case of a fire, to alert Civil Defense, is 125. Azzam, of the Safe Buildings Association, recalls once sitting as a guest on an MTV show and asking the studio audience whether they knew the number. Few did, to his dismay.
“There are two reasons,” he said. “One, Lebanon you have like four or five emergency numbers and one cannot really keep all these in mind during a disaster. Two, you do not memorize these in your childhood.”
Fire safety is a collective responsibility, but in Lebanon it relies on individual initiative. Karout, who lost his warehouse last week, knows this lesson better than most. “We have the human capacity, but not the organization,” he said.