Record heat, surging fires push Delhi's firefighters to the brink

By Adnan Abidi and Chris Thomas

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indervir Singh has worked for the Delhi Fire Services for 32 years but he can't recall responding to as many fires as this summer.

Temperatures in the Indian capital, home to around 20 million people, have hit record highs this year, with the mercury hitting nearly 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) on several occasions.

Calls reporting fires between April and June more than doubled from a year ago to over 9,000, fire services data show. And deaths from fires more than tripled in that period, from just 10 a year ago.

Many of the blazes are in Delhi's teeming old quarters, where the narrow lanes are chock-a-block with shops and homes, with webs of electricity cables and other wires hanging from poles.

"I have attended to several back-to-back calls" on recent shifts, said the grey-haired Singh, 54, before he rushed to the scene of yet another blaze in his thick jacket, heavy boots and red helmet.

Singh was one of over a dozen firefighters and officers interviewed by Reuters, many of whom described working in "doubly" strenuous conditions of extreme heat and numerous fires.

Shifts for firefighters are 24 hours long, followed by a day of rest. Senior officers work three full-day shifts at a time and then take a day off.

"Some weeks, we have to take leave just to get some sleep," said Ajay Sharma, an officer in northwestern Delhi.

Fire officers say electrical failures are responsible for nearly three-quarters of the blazes this summer. With Delhi sweating through what the federal weather office says is one of its longest heat waves on record, demand for air cooling has surged.

The India Meteorological Department classified nine heat wave days in Delhi this June, up sharply from the historic norm of one during the month. Scientists say the heat is being worsened by human-driven climate change.

Sales of air conditioning units in Delhi have grown at a compounded annual rate of 14% between 2018 and 2023, according to analytics firm GfK. Peak-power demand surged to an all-time high on June 19, government data show.

Round-the-clock use of power-intensive appliances like air conditioning units puts severe strain on ageing wiring, while improper maintenance of cables and equipment can also lead to short circuits and start fires, said DFS director Atul Garg.

Rajneesh Sareen, who runs the sustainable habitat program at Delhi's Centre for Science and Environment think-tank, said the city is ill-equipped to cope.

"Delhi's infrastructure was not originally built to take on the kind of extreme conditions we're seeing right now," he said.


Reuters accompanied Singh to the scene of a fire on a sweltering day in June.

Shortly after receiving a call for help via the DFS control room, Singh's team of six firefighters jumped aboard a red fire truck. Its siren blared as it raced down the streets, with Singh using a microphone to order vehicles to make way.

His team was responding to a major blaze in a worn-down two-storey building that housed textile shops in the old quarter of Delhi. They were joined by 33 other fire trucks in the narrow market street, as some 250 firefighters took turns to douse the flames.

Thick smoke billowed into the sky as firefighters on the street and neighbouring rooftops trained their hoses at the inferno.

Hundreds of onlookers jostled to get a glimpse of the action as anxious shopkeepers from neighbouring buildings pleaded with firefighters to douse flames.

Shop workers and first responders said they suspected the fire started due to a short circuit. But part of the building collapsed amid the inferno and DFS was unable to definitively ascertain its cause.

It took more than four days for fire crews to completely douse smoldering material beneath the collapsed debris. There were no fatalities reported.


Summer is a particularly busy time for DFS. The searing heat and lack of moisture in the air speed up the combustibility of materials, said IMD scientist Soma Sen Roy.

"It's not some light work. It's like risking death," said 43-year-old firefighter Rajesh Dabhas as he stopped to catch his breath amid a blaze in May that had destroyed five shops in Old Delhi.

DFS chief Garg said that he had expected fires to increase with the heat, but that if there were many more blazes, it would be "very, very difficult" to handle them effectively.

The service has proposed making it mandatory for commercial buildings to submit an annual fire audit, which Garg said would ensure businesses check if the wiring in their premises - sometimes decades old - could cope with the higher loads.

Regulatory action has helped before. Delhi's power providers once suffered from rampant electricity theft, in which cables are illegally - and often dangerously - connected to power lines to siphon off electricity.

But after major infrastructural investments such as upgrades to distribution networks and the introduction of metering, losses have decreased nearly ten-fold in the past two decades, according to data from BSES Rajdhani Power, a major supplier to the capital.

Three-hundred-and-fifty aspiring firefighters are also undergoing training and will bolster the 1,800-strong all-male force by August. DFS is additionally procuring smaller vehicles that can traverse congested roads and buying robots that can reach hard-to-access areas.

The IMD says it expects monsoon rains to arrive in the region around Delhi this week, which could offer respite for now.

But that is too late for Shanti, a 35-year-old vegetables seller whose home in a riverside slum was destroyed in a June blaze.

"I have lost everything," said Shanti, who gave only one name. "We were happy in this small house but ... will have to start a new life once again."

(Reporting by Chris Thomas and Adnan Abidi; Editing by Katerina Ang)