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When Cambodia Burns

 
 

Thick smoke was billowing out the backdoor of a Phnom Penh shophouse when two firefighters suddenly staggered onto the balcony, coughing and spitting as they recovered from smoke inhalation.

Neither firefighter had a mask. Their solution: squat, because the smoke rises and squatting is the only way to escape its grasp.

Life as a firefighter in Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh can be a tough gig. The Phnom Penh Fire Service mostly operates using donated, used equipment. Sometimes the proper gear isn’t available.

For years, the fire department has been plagued by rumors that its men first take bribes before putting out fires, which they vehemently deny. But when large fires break out, both the firemen and local residents frantically fight them.

Not all of the department’s trucks are operational, and those that are struggle to access the narrow passageways where fires often occur. Without nearby water sources, firemen and villagers drag lengthy hoses from the trucks toward the blazes. These hoses almost always have holes in them and a firefighter can often be seen blocking the hole with his foot or tying a plastic bag around the leak.

Once the battle begins, the firemen tend to keep to the perimeter while desperate residents fill the gap, yanking hoses away from firemen and risking their lives within burning rubble or atop weakening structures. In the past few years of chasing fire trucks, I’ve found residents using garden hoses, buckets of water, and even blocks of ice to buttress the department in its battles against blazes.

One moment has always stuck out, however. As dozens of residents and firemen battled a large inferno that would claim nearly 40 homes, a lone woman sat in the neighboring pagoda, praying.

Faith is often needed when a Phnom Penh fire sparks.

 

When Cambodia Burns
A group of men pull a fire hose toward a blaze that leveled 22 homes in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district in May 2014.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A woman cries as she watches her home burn during a March 2017 blaze that destroyed more than 40 homes next to the River Palace Hotel in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
Two firefighters look above them as wood cracks during a fire that flattened dozens of homes in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district in October 2015.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A lone woman prays in a pagoda as fire rages just feet away during a May 2014 inferno that claimed 22 homes in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A man tosses a block of ice toward a blaze that leveled 22 homes in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district in May 2014.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
Two firefighters exit a burning home to recover from smoke inhalation in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang 3 commune during a January 2017 blaze.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A group of firefighters play cards at their headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang 3 commune in February 2017.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A firefighter dips his head into gushing water during fire truck maintenance at his department’s headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang 3 commune in January 2017.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
Three firefighters nap between calls at their headquarters in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang 3 commune in February 2017.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A group of men aid a lone firefighter with a hose as multiple homes burn during a blaze in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Trabek commune in February 2017.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A man splashes a bucket of water onto a house fire during a March 2017 blaze that destroyed 40 homes in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A group of men stand atop a home’s roof as they spray water toward a March 2017 blaze in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A man uses a garden hose to spray water toward a March 2017 blaze in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A firefighter yells as the water pressure in his hose dips during a fire in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Trabek commune in February 2017.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
Water spews into a plastic bag from a hole in a fire hose during a garment factory fire in Phnom Penh’s Sen Sok district in October 2015.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A group of men wrench a fire hose into a burning home during a February 2017 house fire in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Trabek commune.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A firefighter washes his shoes after returning to his headquarters from a January 2017 house fire in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang 3 commune.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
Phnom Penh Fire Chief Prum Yorn shouts orders at his men during a January 2017 house fire in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Trabek commune.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
A firefighter rolls up a hose after battling a January 2017 house fire in Phnom Penh’s Boeng Keng Kang 3 commune.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
When Cambodia Burns
The remnants of a multiple-home fire in Phnom Penh’s Chbar Ampov district in October 2015.
Image Credit: Alex Consiglio
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