Longhouse fires in Sarawak, a growing concern — Part 2

The fire at Rumah Langat Anthony Collin at Tinjar, Baram, on Jan 31, 2018 left 70 people homeless.

(Read Part I here: https://dayakdaily.com/longhouse-fires-in-sarawak-a-growing-concern-part-1/)

By Nancy Nais

In Part 1 of the ‘Longhouse fires in Sarawak, a growing concern’ series, DayakDaily wrote about the alarming number of cases in the last three years and the agony faced by the victims.

DayakDaily recently spoke to several senior fire chiefs from the state Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) to pick their brains about practical steps which can be taken to address situation.

Ideas and solution


Longhouses in Sarawak are not sanctioned nor under the Sarawak Building Ordinance (SBO) or any building guideline. Hence, any ‘tuai rumah’ (headman) and his/her villagers can build such structures according to their whims and fancies as long as it is on their native customary rights (NCR) land.

Therefore, it is vital a standard operating procedure (SOP) should be established for the construction of all longhouses in the state, and it should include safety specifications and designs, especially on fire prevention.

So, to start off, every longhouse structure, regardless of whether it is an existing or new one, must be regulated. This means including them in the SBO and registering with the respective District Office (DO).

For new longhouses, proper planning must be done by certified draftsmen or architects and the designs submitted to the DO and Bomba for their approvals.

Bomba should be part of the design team because they will be able to give advice on how to build with proper fire safety guidelines.

It is advisable that each ‘bilek’ (room) should have at least one fire extinguisher and the whole structure should not exceed more than 10 ‘bileks’, with the reason being that if there is a fire, the number of losses will be less.

In the event that the community is big and more than 10 ‘bileks’ are needed, the solution is to have a natural fire break, compartment wall or party wall installed to stop the fire from spreading. For example, if there are more then 20 ‘bileks’, then there must be some sort of a warning system, such as self-contained smoke detectors, and hose reels with water supply either from an open water supply or through piping by gravity feed or pumps.

If the longhouse hosts more than 30 ‘bileks’, all the above and fire hydrants should be mandatory.

Each and every longhouse must also form a firefighting squad, such as Bomba Komuniti, Emergency Response Team (ERT) or Persatuan Bomba Sukarela (voluntary).

These squads will come in handy in times of emergency because their coordinated action as trained firefighters can prevent the blaze from spreading further.

They can also help to protect others in the surrounding area while waiting for Bomba to arrive.

Next, Merinyu Electric from the Ministry of Utilities and Sarawak Energy Berhad should also be roped in to check on all electrical appliances and wirings to ensure they are safe.

This is to be followed with insurance coverage for the longhouses.

Once approved and built, another round of inspections must be made by all the authorities concerned, and such inspections should be conducted annually.

As for existing longhouses, once they are regulated under SBO and registered by the DO, they must adopt the methods of fire prevention mentioned earlier.

The 40-door Uma Bakung at Sungai Asap was razed in a fire on Nov 19, 2018.

Since most of the existing longhouses are made of wood, another idea to control fire outbreaks is to treat the wood-based materials with fire-rated material or fire-rated paint. It is an expensive method but one worth considering as at the same time, the design of a traditional longhouse is maintained.

Being a part of Sarawak’s heritage for centuries, longhouses in the state must be protected because of their rich history. It is the traditional home of the Dayak community; hence, the state government should prioritise saving this legacy by helping to maintain it, with modern technology thrown into the mix.

If everyone can share the same objective, to push for longhouses to be under the SBO and legally enforce it, we may be able to save these unique traditional buildings from the ravages of fire.

Like they say, ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. — DayakDaily

Stay tuned for Part 3.

(Read Part I here: https://dayakdaily.com/longhouse-fires-in-sarawak-a-growing-concern-part-1/)