The big Piirissaar fire backdrop – vacant houses, few permanent residents

Piirissaarel põles maha kolm maja ja vanausuliste palvemaja.

PHOTO: Margus Ansu

Three houses and Old Believers' prayer house burned down. With more volunteer firefighters present, perhaps the prayer house could have been saved. had two houses had people in them, perhaps the fire'd never reached the prayer house. 

Houses in a row, Russian style. A few rescuers, putting out the final pockets of fire. Thankfully, no people perished in the night time fire yesterday.

Even so, for the Old Believers on the island, the loss of only prayer house spells a tragedy.  

First, it was a house that caught fire, where two elderly people dwell. Then the house next door, after which the fire crossed the street and took another house.

Only then, it came time for the prayer house.   

In a village like this, houses are built close to one another. Add the above-average wind – and the fact that the ferryboat Koidula was just taken to repairs in Kallaste. Many were the sad coincidences.

Bringing extra fire engines from mainland was impossible.

-Volunteers few

With just four volunteer rescuers on island over the weekend – many had already left to mainland to go to work on Monday – they were not enough. On the island once inhabited by hundreds, only 34 wintered on it this year, and these mostly elderly – no longer fit to fight fires or build new prayer houses.  

So the four volunteers drove up in the two fire engines on island and begun by emptying out the tanks of water. The pumps posed problems and parish elder said one initially failed to start.

Thus, the actual rescue begun an hour and 21 minutes after alarm centre got the message.

That’s when the first professional rescuers arrived by launch from Räpina.

To the other side of the house that first caught fire, owner Valentina Aman saved her home by dipping mantle in water and hosing the house wall all night long – even managing to put out flames from the wall which had begun to burn.

Ms Aman thinks the prayer house could have been spared had people been living in the empty buildings. Now, she will be providing shelter fur a while to those who have home no more.

-Alive and homeless

The married couple in the house that first caught fire were glad to get out at all, having been asleep.

Afterwards, rescue board confirmed the fire to have started from a deep freeze failure. Alas, the house was uninsured so the people will have to leave the island.

The ferryboat in repairs, parish elder Liina Miks was busy getting the people something to eat – the groceries truck only comes tomorrow.

Zoja Kondratjeva, responsible for meetings at the Old Believers prayer house, said she had no idea what to do next. She said they had services each Sunday, with four or five attending through the winter. In summer, the crowd is bigger.  

They will have to take the time now to think, how to build a new prayer house. An elder they had 32 icons in the house, and seven crosses. The people said only five, perhaps up to eight icons were rescued. Plus some books.

The island does feature a few native Estonians. Like Kalju Sakk, a Lutheran, who says they must take up an offering. Let everyone gibe fifty euros, and «then the parish must add as much as we put together,» said Mr Sakk. Parish elder Liina Miks tried to insert the council would have to decide that.

«No! They must!» insisted Mr Sakk, and addressed the state which would have to help rebuild the prayer house, to the cost of «some €70,000 – €90,000.»  

In interior ministry, religious affairs department has already offered the Old Believers the empty Orthodox church building on the island for use, in quite a good condition. The parish elder doubts that Old Believers agree to do that...

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-Interior minister excludes not help with prayer house

Interior minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform) would not exclude state help with the Old Believers prayer house. «Historically, the state has helped out with buildings burned down,» Mr Pevkur told Postimees, but proceeded to list a sting of practical issues from ownership to insurance.

According to National Heritage Board artistic monuments department chief inspector Linda Lainvoo who saw the site, the prayer house is badly damaged. The ceiling has caved in and only two walls are standing, burned and wet with water.

Probably, the house is beyond restoration. «At times, such decisions are needed indeed,» said Juhan Kilumets who specialises in wooden churches. He thinks the stone socle should then be preserved, as a natural monument – and potential help to build the house from scratch.

In case restoration is attempted, experts say such work usually takes half a year – including lots of paper work.

The Piirissaar Old Believers prayer house was erected in 1920, for use by local congregation of Pomorians. Georgi Beltadze

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