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India’s record heat, surging fires push Delhi firefighters to brink: ‘have to take leave to sleep’

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 heatwaves on record, demand for air cooling has surged. The India Meteorological Department classified nine heatwave days in Delhi this June, up sharply from the historic norm of one during the month.