Monday, 21 January 2013


In the words of the old Negro Spiritual part of which is also the title of a powerful book by James Baldwin, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No More Water – the Fire Next time”. Last week Monday, it looked as the final fire had arrived in Ghana. In a 48 hour period from Saturday to Monday there were so many fire outbreaks that the Chief Fire Officer promised to hold a press conference to address the subject in mid-week. Devastating fires usually happen somewhere, on some distant land which looks like a planet in another galaxy. You read about it or see it on television, shake your head and move on. But when you see your neighbours’ houses completely gutted it is an altogether different experience. It is horrifying, bizarre and incomprehensible in its biblical finality. 

It happened on our estate at around midday on Monday. I was not at home so I missed the full extent of the drama but even when I got home around 7pm there was more than enough to send the stomach into cartwheels; two adjoining houses lay in complete ruins being shells of their former selves. One of them had been previously covered in beautiful creeping plants, perhaps the pride and joy of its owner. Ironically, without being an expert, I can see that those beautiful plants, now parched and withered in the Harmattan haze, could have been the fuel that speeded the fire on its murderous journey around the house.

Due to legal implications we will not go into the possible cause of the fire in this specific case, but it is almost always the case that such outbreaks occur as a result of human error; however the lady of the house says they have no idea how the fire started. According to eyewitnesses, the fire started behind one of the houses and people nearby thought it had been quenched when neighbours helped to douse the original fire source with water. Unfortunately, the fire appeared to have “climbed” a nearby tree and torched one of the roofs. The only person at home in the second house was a mother nursing a very new baby and she was barely able to move herself and her baby out of harm’s way minutes before they would have been overcome by smoke inhalation.

Frantic shouts and screams brought the entire estate to the fire site and then the drama of the bigger national tragedy began to unfold. Officially, the number 192 is supposed to be the emergency one-stop telephone number for FIRE. It means that when a fire breaks out and you find a phone all you need to do is phone the magic number 192 and help in the big shape of a red fire engine will be on its way. Fat chance! Neighbours called, shook their telephones, cursed, changed telephones, used I-pads and galaxy tabs – every modern contrivance of electronic communication at hand was pressed into service but 192 was dead as a doornail. Then somebody had the presence of mind to call the police emergency number – 191- which worked. I am generally critical Ghana Police but on this occasion they responded and in style. They arrived within minutes and escorted two water tankers provided by the estate developer to help even before the firefighters, whom the police had called, arrived.

According to eye-witnesses, for two hours it appeared as if the post-Noah Armageddon had arrived on the estate. In a sign of the times and the solid arrival of citizen journalism on these shores, later in the evening I saw no less than ten video recordings of the event captured by onlookers on their mobile phones. It looked dreadful as huge flames leapt out of windows of houses I see every day across the road from my side of the street. For some strange reason, hours after the Fire Service engines had left, presuming their work done a new outbreak started in one of the houses, which is where things were when I got home in the evening. Frantic calls to 192 failed again and again and neighbours had to call police emergency and personal contacts to get through to the Fire Service. The firefighters went away after about an hour. Let us call that Fire Visitation Two. Curiously, I learnt the following morning that Fire Visitation Three occurred at one o’clock in the morning when the fire smouldered back into life.

Two obvious questions arise. Number one, why does the fire emergency number not work? Second, how come the fire erupted again and again hours after the fire engines had left the first and second times around? In the heat of the moment, trying to get answers appeared to be a petty distraction but one of the firemen told me that the fire erupted again because combustible material had been “hiding” under the ashes somewhere in the room and such material could have smouldered back into life. It is not an acceptable explanation.

I am not a fire expert but I think it is reasonable to expect that when professional people do any work they have a standard assessment procedure that enables them to conclude that their work has been done, especially in order to assure the public of their safety. This was not the case on Monday evening on the estate. The fire returned flaring through the now broken windows and threated nearby houses in the night. Maybe it is not the fault of the firefighters; it is possible that the engines were needed elsewhere.  During Harmattan we are all supposed to be cautious because the tinder-dry atmosphere spreads fire with ruthless speed; the Fire Service and various local and national authorities mount campaigns but to no avail. That is because words are not enough.

There has to be a more robust approach towards preventing fires and other accidents and catastrophes in our lives. Most of these things can be prevented with a combination of education, laws and regulations – all of which are in woefully short supply in Ghana. For example, all telecom companies must be required by law to keep enough lines open to ensure that there is NEVER any congestion on emergency numbers; we know they can do it because re-charge numbers are never out of coverage area! Secondly, how come estates and communities lack water points and hydrants from which water can be tapped to fight fires? Modern estates are being built all over Ghana and it should be a requirement for them to include such preventive facilities in their designs.

In the case of the Accra-Tema area, city authorities have to ensure that fire service facilities are developed in response to the way the twin cities are developing. Take the Spintex Road: there is a gas cylinder manufacturing plant along the thoroughfare. We can assume that there is gas stored there for testing purposes. Within a one kilometre of that factory there are two gas filling stations in addition to numerous petrol selling points which are opening at the rate of one every couple of months. There are factories and furniture shops all over the street. There is no fire station anywhere in sight despite it being one of the most congested roads in Ghana.

Reports in indicate that there were 150 fires in the past week. In Noah’s time there was water. We have been promised the fire next time. It may not come from Hell but made right here by our own hands and negligence. Indeed, it is already here – the Fire This Time.


Beginning from today, Shelf Life will be a constant one-paragraph feature about books, mostly the books I am reading. But readers can join in the fun by telling Diary readers what they are reading or want to read. I am currently reading Baffour Agyeman Duah’s recently launched memoires MY GHANAIAN ODYSSEY published by Digibooks and available at Legon Bookshop, Silverbird at Accra Mall and leading book stores in Ghana.

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