NIIGATA (TR) – A fire broke out from a Chinese restaurant in Itoigawa City at around 10:30 a.m. before growing into a massive blaze that razed some 140 buildings, which firefighters brought under after a 10-hour battle, authorities said on Wednesday.
City officials issued an evacuation order for 744 residents across 363 households in what the Fire and Disaster Management Agency called the worst spreading fire excluding earthquakes and tsunami in the past 20 years, NHK reports (Dec. 23).
A woman in her 40s was hospitalized after inhaling fumes and another woman in her 40s suffered light injuries when she tripped while evacuating, Itoigawa City’s countermeasure headquarters said, adding that three firefighters were also injured.
1053 firefighters from 3 prefectures
A total of 1053 firefighters from 20 fire departments from the prefectures of Toyama, Nagano and Niigata worked together to extinguish most of the blaze by 9 p.m.
Thick plumes of smoke spread as far as 300 meters to the Japan Sea, fire department officials said.
Niigata Prefecture Governor Ryuichi Yoneyama also requested help from the Ground Self-Defense Force at around 2 p.m.
About 160 GSDF soldiers called on residents close to the fire to evacuate, and searched burned-out rubble for any people that were left behind.
A senior GSDF official at the time said “progress is being held back by smoke hindering visibility as well as the intense heat.”
Firefighters had to grapple with difficult conditions at the site in their long and daunting fight.
The Fire and Disaster Manageament Agency ordered pumps to deliver seawater to the site due to insufficient water, and aerial firefighting was out of the question because of residents still in the area, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported.
An official at the Itoigawa Fire Department Headquarters said the alleys in the roads “were narrow so we couldn’t get in there and blast water [at the blaze] head-on.”
A 63-year-old man who works runs an izakaya pub near the blaze said he “thought something smelled like smoke, when flames suddenly broke out. It calmed down for a moment, but the wind direction changed toward the shops.”
Hisako Machizawa, 72, lost her home she lived in for over 50 years.
“I was away from the fire and all, so I never thought my own home would burn down,” Machizawa said. “I had just bought shimenawa [sacred rope] to prepare for New Year’s. I hope to quickly find a home to live in and slowly pass the time.”
‘Worried about what happens next’
More than 10 public health nurses were attending to residents at evacuation centers in the city, according to NHK.
Fifty people were gathered at three evacuation centers in the city as of 9 p.m., city officials said.
None of the evacuees were said to be in bad shape, but there are reports of residents struggling to deal with having to suddenly flee their homes and elderly who were forced to leave behind their daily medication.
An 85-year-old woman who fled told NHK she was “thinking of going home from the hospital when the fire broke out, so I evacuated and came here without knowing what condition my home is in.”
“I was able to get in touch with my family, but I’m worried about what happens next,” the elderly woman said.
A 68-year-old woman said wind from the south was “strong since this morning, and even from this evacuation center, you can see that the blaze is spreading out more and more because of the wind. This is the first time I experienced a fire this big.”
A female second-grade student said she learned about the fire “when my school held an emergency assembly.”
“I never would’ve thought a fire like this could happen, so it’s scary, and I hope the fire goes out fast,” the second grader said.
Support for small- and medium- sized businesses
The Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry announced plans to provide support measures like a consultation service for small- and medium-sized businesses affected by the fire.
Consultation branches will be opened at 31 locations based in government-affiliated financial institutions in Niigata Prefecture.
Officials will advise businesses on the rebuilding process as well as securing new financing and extending repayments.
The Japan Finance Corporation will also work with other entities to offer businesses a disaster recovery loan of up to 150 million yen.