RIGA - The State Fire Fighting and Rescue Service took the heat this week after the Interior Ministry released the findings of an investigation into the most fatal fire in Latvian history, which occurred earlier this year. The report also included recommendations for a badly needed restructuring of the service. The tragic fire broke out a 1 a.m. on Feb. 23 at the Regi nursing home in the rural town of Alsunga, not far from the Baltic Sea coast. The fire quickly engulfed the building, killing 26 people
In all, 88 people had been in the rest home at the time of the fire. Fifty-four were evacuated, and nine were rescued by firefighters. Five sustained injuries. Only one night worker was on duty.
The Interior Ministry announced that the fire was most probably caused by a short circuit on the third floor, where approximately one dozen people slept and no fire alarms had been installed. The fire occurred during one of the coldest nights of the winter, and many residents at the rest home had hooked up space heaters to keep warm. In such a scenario, the circuits could have overloaded and caused a fire.
The report found that the third floor had undergone reconstruction since the previous summer but that the State Fire and Rescue Service had not been informed of construction and therefore had not given certification for the plans.
Immediately after the fire, President Vaira Vike-Freiberga stressed that blame should not be laid solely at the feet of the firefighters. Yet the Interior Ministry has launched a plan to re-vamp the fire fighting services and improve Latvia's fire safety record 's one of the worst in Europe.
"We have never had to leave a single fire unattended, but the situation is critical in the area of infrastructure," State Fire and Rescue Service head Ainars Pencis said in an interview with the television program "900 Seconds."
He added that an unacceptably high 70 percent of their budget went to staffing and wages.
Laura Karnite, head of the Interior Ministry's press department, told The Baltic Times, "This thing is not very new 's we have had this situation from 1991. They have a very bad situation with infrastructure and with some technical things. Now we have a new program, a plan."
The estimated cost to bring the State Fire and Rescue Services up to European standards is 220 million lats (314 million euros).
There were 34 registered fires over the weekend of May 12, in which eight people died.