27 January 2013

Ethiopia: Urbanised Fires


Fire has always been vital to the survival of mankind. As useful as it may be, however, fire can also become dangerous and destructive, unless it is handled with the utmost of care.

One of the major causes of fires, in addition to natural causes, such as lightening or intense sunlight, is the congested nature of settlements in slum areas, where shelters are made out of cardboard, plastic covers and thatched roofs. Many people living in such makeshift dwellings tend to store combustible items in the same rooms as candles or gas stoves.

It is not uncommon for dwellers to fall asleep before putting out their candles or lanterns. It is easy to understand what a burning candle or cigarette butt might do, if left next to combustible materials.

Most huts in rural Ethiopia have thatched roofs, in order to achieve better air circulation. These rooms are warmer in the cold season and cooler during the hot and dry season, not to speak of their low cost.

Owners of these huts try to keep intruders at bay by placing thick layers of thorny hedges around the perimeter of the hut; this is in addition to the fierce dogs that they keep, in order to chase away intruders, be they human or wild beast. But times have changed.

Huts with thatched roofs are no longer guarded by fences or loyal canines. They have been gradually replaced by corrugated iron roofs, despite the shortcomings of such materials and their relatively high cost.

Before the establishment of the first modern fire brigade, 79 years ago, by a Russian expert named Tutu Chaminev, traditional methods were used to extinguish fires. Those in need would shout for help; women in particular would use their high pitched voices to raise the alarm. The neighbours would then amplify the yelling by repeating and reverberating the same words again and again.

People would then fetch water or branches of trees, sometimes even soil, to throw on to the flames and put out the fire.

With the passage of time, the old methods were unable to keep up with the force of the fires and this, in turn, led to the establishment of the fire brigade.

In the early years of the brigade, only about 100 men were employed and trained on how to extinguish fires, using water or foam, depending on the type of fire. However, extinguishing fires was not the sole task of the organisation. It was also responsible for saving lives and property in other threatening situations. Accidents like drowning and falling into water wells or dry latrines were also under its jurisdiction.

Basha Sisay Habte, 60, a person who shared his views with me recently, is a veteran fire fighter who has served the fire brigade for over 40 years and has had a wealth of experience and a large variety of different encounters. I was introduced to him by Solomon Mekonnen, communications head of the brigade, who had kept his good offices wide open for information.

Basha shared stories of some of the major fire incidents that occurred in the 1970s. Among these destructive fires, he remembers vividly the huge accident that turned the Addis Abeba Cotton Factory, worth millions of Birr, into a pile of ashes.

Another major fire was the one that changed the face of Merkato, after it started near the Raguel Church, Basha recalls.

The airplane crash that took place at Bole International Airport, in the 1970s, was also one of the accidents that Basha recalls. It involved an Antonov cargo aircraft with eight men on board. The aircraft apparently failed to take off and crashed off the air strip, where it was set ablaze. All the men on board, except one, were saved.

The rescue patrols were unable to locate one person underneath all of the wreckage. To the surprise of them all, the man had escaped somehow and had fled for dear life, helped by a motorist. He was later found at the Police Hospital, having made his own way there.

Solomon regrets that despite the huge financial layouts on the construction of high rise buildings, massive stores and warehouses, very little focus is given to safety issues in the country. Electrical wiring systems and accessories for electrical appliances are not adequately designed to include safety exits or proper fire extinguishers.

Negligence and forgetfulness to turn off lights or appliances, like irons or heating stoves, can easily cause fire and damage both life and property. He believes that the offices, which licence the construction of houses and other buildings, should make sure that the designs include adequate safety considerations. Guards and other general service staff should also be given basic training on how to use fire extinguishers, or at least be informed of the emergency telephone number of the fire brigade.

On the other hand, irresponsible callers who dial 939 without any purpose, other than their own entertainment, should be brought before the law and made to pay dearly for their folly; either through fines or by being kept behind bars.

Institutions ought to have sensors that trigger alarms, as an early warning, when potential dangers, such as misplaced cigarettes, are present.

Fires in Addis Abeba may not be as frequent as in the cities of the Western world. But, with the increase in population and rapid growth of urban areas, it will not be long before such accidents increase, endangering human life and public property.

The brigade that started its operation with no more than 100 men, two trucks, a hose and a water pump, 79 years ago, has over the years grown to a total eight branches. It serves the capital and its suburbs with nine fire trucks, each with a patrol of at least six members. There are three special German-made sky high lifts or trucks with tall cranes, one of which reaches up to 72 metres.

The number of employees has risen to over 500. With the growth of urbanisation and the increased duties that come with it, the department has plans to equip itself, in order to match the potential demands. Even then, its guiding principles when it comes to fire, is 'prevention is better than cure'. Indeed, preventing fires is better, in every sense of the word.

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