Print Edition - 2014-04-27  |  Free the Words

Up in flames

  • Losses by fire can be greatly reduced by practicing and promoting fire safety
- Kedar Babu Dhungana
Up in flames

Apr 26, 2014-

The series of infernos across the country that started last month has already taken four lives, including two minors, gutted down more than 200 homes and damaged much property. The inferno has been equally damaging to massive forest areas. The majority of these incidents have occurred in Tarai districts and given the prevalence of thatched houses and strong winds, the fire escalates within minutes. In most cases, families have been unable to evacuate their household belongings. Life saving becomes the first priority in such disasters.  

Similarly, there were more than 400 cases of fire reported in March last year. The inferno may increase dramatically since the dry and windy season is just approaching. Nepal faces fire hazards in the dry season and as soon as the monsoon starts, there are threats of flood and landslides. Thus, the cycle of suffering continues. It is high time that measures be undertaken to mitigate such disasters—as they are largely preventable—by engaging all stakeholders.

Behaviour to blame

When reviewing cases of fires—rural, urban and even forest fires—unsafe human behaviour and practices, carelessness and a lack of preparedness are among the primary causes. Many industrial and domestic fires are reportedly caused by electrical problems. Examples of such unsafe behaviour include cooking in open and windy courtyards; unsafe use of ovens; haphazard management of fire remnants from ovens, like throwing away fire containing ash; disposing of cigarette butts in forest areas; setting fire to forests expecting vegetation expansion and manure; unsafe use of fire in cowsheds to control mosquitoes; and poor maintenance of electrical systems at homes, offices, industries and warehouses.

The situation is only aggravated by poor preparedness at the community, municipal and district levels. Furthermore, Nepal does not have a well-equipped fire brigade to be mobilised in controlling fires, even in urban areas. The first fire brigade of the nation—Juddha Barun Yantra Station at New Road in Kathmandu—was established in the year 1937 but the government enacted the Fire Brigade Operation and Management Guidelines only in 2010. There were plans to establish three new fire stations in the Kathmandu Valley in the near future but these have yet to materialise. Still, a lot has to be done on capacity development. Policy guidelines state that each municipality should have its own well-equipped fire brigade but very few do. Of those existing, maintenance and operations are dismal.

Largely preventable

Losses can be greatly reduced simply by practicing and promoting fire safety. A recent fire in the slum area of Sinamangal in Kathmandu was a case of negligence, which destroyed more than 50 huts. Another recent fire in Jamuni, Saptari was caused by unsafe human behaviour. A two-year old child was killed and around 100 huts were gutted. Nepal cannot recover from such property losses on its own and the loss to the forest sector has many negative impacts on the environment, ecology and human livelihoods.  

Data from the Ministry of Home Affairs states that only 55 lives lost, out of a total of 420 from natural disasters, were due to fires across the country in the year 2069. Assets and property loss due to fires are huge. These losses could have been prevented if we were better prepared at the household, community and state levels. People are less aware of safety measures from natural hazards. Some efforts have been put in place by local administrations with support from local communities in controlling fires but these have hardly been able to prevent losses.

Most domestic fire cases occur in poor and marginalised communities and mostly in the Tarai, like the Aurahi inferno in Siraha in 2012, which displaced more than 600 families. The implication here is that fires also have a lot to do with poverty and illiteracy.  The poor are the most vulnerable and poverty aligns with their household practices. However, experience shows that Nepal still has to invest a lot in disaster preparedness at all levels.

Measures to take

There are simple safety measures that can be adopted at the household level to prevent and deal with fires. For example, care should be taken while cooking on an open flame in the courtyard and ashes should be disposed of safely. Fires should never be left unattended and must be put out immediately after use. Special care must be taken while using kerosene, bamboo and thatch in the kitchen. Matches and lighters are not playthings and must be kept out of the reach of children. Furthermore, electrical appliances and outlets require maintenance and proper insulation.

The problem with Nepali society is that we are often neglectful and don’t take issues seriously until it’s too late. Hence, we continue to suffer from preventable causes. Awareness plays a large constructive role in behavioural change and adds value in preventing disasters. With wider networks and communities’ access to local media, FM radios can play a vital role in creating awareness. This should be a part of their social responsibility. Local institutions, ranging from clubs and mother groups to religious institutions, can also play constructive roles in raising awareness of safe household practices.  Similarly, schools can be a crucial place to inculcate behavioural changes through children.

Thus, it is important to immediately start intensive awareness campaigns on fire risk reduction along with effective state responses across the country as immediate preventive measures. Longer term measures on building community resilience are also imperative and should go forward in parallel.     

Dhungana is a disaster risk management expert

Published: 27-04-2014 09:10

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