Longhouse fires in Sarawak, a growing concern – Part 4

The new concept of a traditional longhouse, with recommended fire safety features as approved by state government.

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.

In Part 2, we picked the brains of several senior fire chiefs from the state Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) for practical tips that can be used to address the situation.

In Part 3, Bomba revealed the main causes of longhouse fires in the last three years and the efforts being taken to mitigate the risks, including educating adults and children.

New longhouse concept 

Apart from various programmes that are meant to reduce longhouse fires, Bomba has also come up with a new concept of traditional longhouse with fire safety features approved by the Sarawak government.

Miri fire chief Law Poh Kiong explained that the structure of the building was based on the traditional arts and cultures of the Dayak community, such as maintaining the ‘ruai’ (veranda) — which is deemed a must-have feature in every longhouse design.

Underlying the new concept are elements of urban town planning, meaning proper drains, road links and firebreaks in the buildings. This will provide better comfort to the longhouse occupants.

The new concept of a traditional longhouse, with recommended fire safety features as approved by state government.


Rumah Collin Sait in Bukit Peninjau, Bakong, Miri

Law gave an example of Rumah Collin Sait, which created history last year as the first Iban longhouse to be built according to the recommended plan. It was a pioneer project by the Ministry of Local Government and Housing under the ‘Rumah Panjang Mesra Rakyat Scheme’.

Located about 40km from Miri city, it became the first modern longhouse to be equipped with safety, cultural and other aspects, including strata titles and insurance!

Designed by an Iban architect, this enabled the longhouse to not lose its traditional features, such as a common veranda for communal activities.

With insurance coverage, the owner of each ‘bilek’ (room) can at least enjoy a peace of mind that in the event of misfortune, at least his or her family is covered by the sum insured.

One of the insurers, Allianz Malaysia, came up with a plan called `Allianz KampungKu’, which is relatively very affordable. It provides protection for `kampung’ wooden houses or household contents against fire, flood and windstorm risks.

Rumah Colin is covered under this plan.

Allianz KampungKu Insurance Plan

Meanwhile, since each ‘bilek’ head has legal ownership through the issuance of individual land titles, it has also made them the first to have longhouse ownership. Previously, it was based on communal reserve. From there, they can apply for loans by using the title as collateral, and this is what the longhouse folks did — they applied for soft loans to build their longhouse.

The owner can also use the land title to apply for other financial loans, such as for children education purposes, from banks.

Supporting the new concept

Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing

Meanwhile, Deputy Chief Minister Tan Sri Dr James Jemut Masing welcomed any inputs to reduce longhouse fire risks.

“Dayak longhouses are the victims of fire every year. When a longhouse catches fire, the whole ‘bilek’ will be burnt to the ground. Everything is gone and the damage inflicted is in thousands to millions of ringgit,” he said.

Agreeing with all the suggestions made by Bomba, Masing said all longhouse designs must change, and Dayak leaders need to sit down and address the issue seriously because there is an urgent need to find the best approaches to building longhouses.

He gave an example where the state government redesigned the structure for the Sungai Asap resettlement in Belaga.

“The longhouse in Sungai Asap is plotted in a block of no more than 15 `bileks’ and a fire break of 20 feet between each block. Because of this, many longhouse or blocks were saved when a fire broke out in Sungai  Asap,” he said.

Acknowledging that lots of longhouse fires were caused by electrical short circuit and carelessness in the kitchen, Masing said the provision of electricity and gas cylinders were something new to some longhouse residents, especially those who had for years lived without them; hence, they were not aware of the dangers.

“It would be good to continually educate these villagers on the dangers of electricity and gas cylinders and how to use them properly,” he said.

He opined it would be wise for the government to insist that all new longhouses must be constructed in a block of not more than 10 `bileks’, with firebreak of 20 feet between each block.

Apart from that, Masing also suggested that the government establish subsidised group insurance for every longhouse, and the insurance companies could collaborate.

Hope and encouragement

Based on the Rumah Collin Sait and Sungai Asap resettlement models, it is the hope of many that all longhouse dwellers, especially the longhouse `tuai rumah’ (chieftains), accept this new longhouse development concept. As leader of the longhouse, the ‘tuai rumah’ ought to help ensure all its people have a roof over their heads and that they are safe at all times.

As mentioned in Part 2 of this series, the Sarawak Building Ordinance (SBO) makes no mention that longhouses must have fire safety elements. So it is now up to the state government to make the necessary amendments to this law.

In any case, changing the mindset of people who are used to living under one long roof and making their own decisions on how they want to live will not be easy, but it is something that needs to be done.

There will be many sceptics of such a plan, but one day, they will scramble on board if the initiative shows signs of success. — DayakDaily