Longhouse fires in Sarawak, a growing concern – Part 5

Seen are firewalls in between each 'bilek' at Rh Collin.

(Read more: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4)

By Nancy Nais

In DayakDaily’s “Longhouse fires in Sarawak, a growing concern” series parts 1-4, the alarming number of cases in the last three years, ideas and practical steps which can be taken, cause of longhouse fires and efforts to mitigate the risks through educating adults and children were discussed.

A new concept of traditional longhouse with recommended fire safety features as approved by the state government and insurance plan were also laid out and Rumah Collin Sait, in Bukit Peninjau Bakong, Miri created history in 2017 as the first Iban longhouse to be built according to the recommended plan.

In the final part of this series, DayakDaily visited Rumah Collin to see this traditional-modern fusion longhouse.

Rh Collin Sait

Situated just about 40km away from Miri city, the journey to Rh Collin was a pleasant 45 minutes car ride on tarred road lined with beautiful scenery. With the help of Fire and Rescue Department (Bomba) Miri personnel, DayakDaily was able to visit this remarkable longhouse, notable as the first in Sarawak to be built according to the department’s and state government’s recommended plan.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by its friendly chieftain 75-year-old Collin Sait Ukel, his family and the rest of the longhouse residents.

Built in Aug 2015, and completed in early 2017, the 23-door longhouse is a beautiful structure, a mix of modern architecture with traditional design consisting of a ‘ruai’, and each unit or ‘bilek’ with a living room, three bedrooms, washroom, and indoor and outdoor kitchens.

Not only do the 110 residents have 24-hour electricity, they also have access to clean treated water, closed roof, ‘firewall’ in every ‘bilek’, ventilated walls and skylights.

The long kitchen has a ventilated roof that opens away from the longhouse to control smoke.

Toilets are connected to a sewage pipe that leads to a septic tank followed by a leach field, a network of perforated pipes that filter waste before it enters the soil.

The interior of Rh Collin is designed to be spacious with good ventilation.

While the men sat in the ‘ruai’ discussing with Bomba officers about setting up their own volunteer firefighting team, the women were busy in the spacious outdoor kitchen preparing lunch for their guests.

Collin spoke about his longhouse and how thankful he was for it in the midst of changes.

“Before this, we were staying in individual houses near to each other in this same area. In 2008, we decided to build a longhouse so we sought advice from the relevant authorities on what to do. After a few years of waiting, we were given the proposal called ‘Rumah Panjang Mesra Rakyat Scheme’ in 2015.”

It was a RM2.65 million pioneer project under the Ministry of Local Government and Housing, implemented through Housing Development Corporation (HDC).

The womenfolk of Rh Collin preparing lunch in their outdoor kitchen, which is also ideal for fire safety and precaution.

“The cost for each unit is RM115,589 per door. The good news is, about 30 per cent or RM38,589 is subsidised by the government. So we took a bank loan for the remaining RM77,179. Each family is now paying RM327.10 per month for a period of 25 years with interest of two per cent per year,” Collin said, while showing the details of his longhouse neatly compiled in a booklet.

They were also the first in the state to receive individual land titles for the longhouse with insurance for both the owner and property.

When asked if he feels that the ‘cup is empty, half-empty or full’, Collin said it is full.

“Everything is good and we are happy. My house is now my family asset. ‘Cukup manah’ (very satisfied). I’m also thankful for the technology that allows us to live in a safer house where we are able to detect or avoid fire issues. I am also thankful to the state government and Bomba for giving us the opportunity to be the first (to build it).”

Seen is Rh Collin’s ‘ruai’ area.
Proper wiring at Rh Collin.
Fire extinguishers and firewalls can be seen along the back wall of Rh Collin.

Having attended three Bomba community events in Miri, Collin added that he is looking forward to setting up a unit for his longhouse.

“I’ve learnt a lot about fire safety, prevention and many more from Bomba. It is very important and I will seek advice from Bomba Miri zone about setting it up.”

On a related note, Miri Bomba fire chief Law Poh Kiong also encouraged Rh Collin’s female residents to take part in the department’s fire and safety programme.

Law explained to the womenfolk that there were cases where female villagers didn’t know how to use fire extinguishers and instead, these women threw the whole extinguishers into the fire.

New hope – Rh Salin Abong

Meanwhile, in the wake of so many longhouse fires occurring in the state in recent years, a group of villagers representing 34 ‘bilek’ and headed by their chief, ‘tuai rumah’ Salin Abong from Sg Selulit, Bok, Tinjar in Miri approached Bomba for fire safety advice before building their new home.

Salin, 57, was also at Collin’s house to survey and discuss with the latter on the concept of better longhouse safety.

Salin and his villagers had realised that if they are planning to build 34 ‘bilek’ for about 200 people, they must do it properly.

Law (centre) with Collin (left) and Salin discussing wiring issues.
From left: Law, Collin, Salin, Lopeng fire station chief Terry Robson and another resident from Rh Collin.

Among the issues discussed were proper wiring, party wall, entrances and exits, building materials, longhouse design as recommended by Bomba and the state government, fire hydrants and insurance.

“After some discussions, we’ve decided to do our own longhouse design. However, we will definitely take Bomba’s advice in building firewall at every two or three ‘bilek’. We’ve applied for housing loans from HDC and thankfully, they were approved. We will purchase the materials on our own, rather than using another contractor or third party,” Salin said.

Salin said at first, the residents were divided over which features of the new longhouse design were most important, with competing ideas in relation to fire prevention, ventilation, convenience and tradition.

“What is more important, is safety, affordability and bringing consensus to the longhouse design. In the interest of fire prevention, we’ve agreed to separate the kitchen from the longhouse.”

If one were to ask why does these people choose to continue staying in a longhouse instead of individual houses, the answer is there is a real sense of community and a feeling that one would never be lonely.

(Read more: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4)

— DayakDaily