Sun, 26 Jan 2003

Wet season comes but fires continue

The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Although the rains have arrived in this part of the country, that does not necessarily mean there will be an end to the fires that often sweep through the slums of Jakarta.

Fires in the capital do not stop with the advent of the rainy season as past records have shown. On the contrary, they continue right through it, leaving a deadly toll in its path.

Last year's statistics reminds us that 47 cases of fire, with combined financial losses reaching Rp 6.4 billion (US$710,000), broke out in January 2002, when torrential rains soaked the city and floods hit areas throughout the capital.

The following month, when more and more parts of Jakarta were flooded with water depths going up to six meters and about 100,000 people were evacuated from their homes, outbreaks of fire continued to occur and even increase to 69 incidents, with combined estimated losses hitting Rp 7.2 billion.

The number of fires decreased to 60 in March 2002, with estimated damages amounting to Rp 6.3 billion.

In those three rainiest months of 2002, fires destroyed some 5,000 houses, leaving more than 8,000 families without any shelter from the continuous downpours, which further aggravated their suffering.

History seems to be repeating itself this year. The rains have started to fall on the capital this month, but that has not stopped the fires from starting or spreading.

By the end of the third week of January, 51 fires had ravaged countless homes, claiming four lives in their wake. That total represents a 8.5 percent increase in the cases of fire and a staggering 400 percent increase in fatalities.

The Jakarta Fire Agency has listed at least 114 fire-prone subdistricts in 34 districts across Jakarta. Some of those subdistricts are also considered flood-prone areas, many of which are located in North Jakarta.

North Jakarta also had the most fires last year. Out of a total of 869 fires in the capital, 194 started in North Jakarta, arguably making it the most fire-prone area in the capital.

If this month's trend continues, then the entire capital and not only North Jakarta, can expect to see more fires in the immediate future.

"Fire knows no season. It could, and, believe me, it does take place during heavy rain. So we should not let our guard down just because we have entered the rainy season," a veteran firefighter, Suchali M Ali, told The Jakarta Post.

A certain degree of preparedness and alertness is needed, said Suchali, because carelessness is the major factor behind the causes of most fires.

Carelessness could range from something as simple as smoking in bed to failing to equip tall buildings with mandatory fire prevention facilities and fire extinguishers.

Carelessness is a major contributing factor because of the public's low awareness of the risks of fire, its prevention and ways to escape a blaze.

To increase public awareness on the dangers of fire, the CPA has been offering fire prevention programs, including training in evacuation, rescue and fire-fighting techniques for the public, since 2001.