This time around every year, news reports of fire wreaking havoc in the homes and villages of Nepal are quite common. The hot and dry wind of the season makes it easy for an ignition to catch a haystack or a hut, sometimes causing fire to spread over an entire village. Rural Terai and the mid-hills see frequent incidents of fire in the homes and cowsheds, where bamboo, wood, thatch and similar materials are waiting to catch fire. Cities with dense clusters of concrete buildings are also at risk of fires, which, however, may have different causes and consequences. Forest fires are another hazard destroying valuable resources, and, at times, threatening the lives of the people near where they happen. Just the other day, several news stories of fires made into print and broadcast media. Fires in Siraha, Kapilvastu and Arghakhanchi burnt more than 300 houses. In Saptari, about 200 families lost their homes to fires over the past week. In Biratnagar, a fire caused by excessive heat of a running machine burnt down a jute mill. The reasons for the fires were as simple as these: one broke out while a farmer was boiling milk and another caught a haystack and spread. The consequences, however, are grave. Although no one died, property losses ran into hundreds of millions of rupees and some people received burns. The families, who lost their homes, belongings and cattle to the fires, will now need tremendous courage to rebuild their lives.
In several of these incidents, the local people and police personnel were working together, innovating ways to put out fires, for example, by using pump sets to bring water from the rivers and ponds to douse the flames. But that was an ad hoc response. In one case, the firefighter nearby was out of order. In another, it took time for the trucks with water hoses to arrive from a distance. In yet another, firefighters did not come to help at all because the place was far away. These fire stories are almost formulaic with even the contents strangely similar and familiar. Has nothing changed in these stories over the years? Or, does nothing change in the substance and manner of our dealing with fires?
An Internet database, which includes disaster-related data from the Gorkhapatra, among other sources, shows fires as the most commonly occurring disaster in Nepal. Fires occupy 29 per cent, floods 19 per cent, epidemic 17 per cent and landslide 16 per cent among the frequent hazards recorded in the inventory. The records show floods accounting for 37 per cent, fires 32 per cent and earthquakes 18 per cent of the destroyed housing. The broader trends of natural and man-made hazards in the country over the years help provide a perspective to the recent incidents of fire that caused colossal loss of property and unfathomable suffering for thousands of people. They show fire is a burning issue, which necessitates a massive national programme integrating awareness, education, training and resources for fire safety, preparedness, response, relief and rehabilitation to deal with it. The media would do well to orient their stories towards seeking a solution and publicising the need of caution and the ‘how-to’ in case of fire every year before the hot days start.