Expert: Kek Lok Si Temple blaze a wake-up call

KUALA LUMPUR: If rats were at the root of the fire at Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang, it meant the vermin infestation had persisted alongside its inherent risks for some time now.

Malaysian Institute of Architects Heritage and Conservation Committee (PAM) chairman Steven Thang said based on news reports, the temple's committee members could have known about the problems but did not address them.

He said that they must not sweep these issues under the rug, adding that the rats could also have been gnawing on the temple's wiring.

"A fire involving a knocked oil lamp or lamps meant that combustible paraphernalia was not secured. Oil-based fires are also hard to contain as they float on wet surfaces," he told the New Sunday Times.

Thang said the fire could have destroyed the 130-year-old facility if it had spread by wind and paper-based ornaments.

He said the committee was, however, lucky as there was no major festival or crowd during the incident.

Steven Ooi, one of the temple's trustees, had earlier said temple workers suspected a rat — or two — might have knocked over an oil lamp near a Kuan Yin statue in a prayer hall in the incident on Oct 12.

The Fire and Rescue Department reported that 70 per cent of one of the temple's buildings was damaged in the predawn incident.

Malaysia has previously been rocked by several fires involving historic buildings and communities this year.

On Sept 30, fire gutted 75 houses and 11 shops in Kampung Baru Cina Karak, Pahang.

In February, the corridor of the Old Sanitary Board and Town Hall building in Dataran Merdeka here caught fire. The blaze spread to its interior and endangered four buildings at the intersection of Jalan Raja and Jalan Tun Perak.

On Aug 31, 2019, a fire in Sungai Lembing, Pahang, gutted 32 century-old buildings in the settlement, destroying history and the community's way of life in a place that was once known as the "El Dorado of the East".

An elderly couple died in the blaze, and the community's 50-year-old library with books chronicling its storied past and a tome twice the facility's age were among the destroyed treasures.

Thang said the Kek Lok Si Temple fire was a wake-up call.

He urged the authorities and custodians of historic buildings to get their act together before these structures, built mostly out of wood, were destroyed.

He said the temple committee should recruit a specialist to conduct building and fire safety audits at least every six months.

These checks, said Thang, must also be conducted before festivals due to the storage and use of flammable items, such as lanterns and paper, as well as increased footfalls.

He said a report and a set of recommendations should be given to the temple's trustees once the audit was completed.

"The trustees must be bound to follow the expert's advice," he said, adding that it was not known whether the temple had fire safety provisions and an evacuation plan to cater to peak festival periods.

Thang said PAM was preparing fire safety guidelines for heritage buildings and structures and hoped to get them adopted by all local authorities and councils.

The guidelines will include requirements such as protocols, ranging from periodic audits and submission of reports to local authorities and councils as well as planning permission submissions for renovations.

There will also be crucial deterrents to prevent unscrupulous parties from taking advantage of loopholes within the conservation guidelines.

"It is interesting to see how this takes shape at the core of George Town's World Heritage Site where a building's facade can't be changed for fear that its (World Heritage Status) status might be affected."

Thang said the document must be taken as a standard for all local councils to manage the use, planning and activities involving heritage buildings.

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