IN just two months so far into 2021, this country has suffered a dozen devastating fires, destroying buildings, disrupting lives, and dealing a burdensome blow to the economic status of scores of Guyanese. Earlier this month, three infernos flattened homes in Georgetown, leaving 27 citizens homeless in different parts of the capital city. In January, two separate fires left two men homeless at Corentyne, and a 26-year-old woman, Krystle Chung, died in a fire at Diamond on the East Bank of Demerara. Too often, news of a major fire hits the national news outlets, causing the nation to feel the angst of yet another inferno. It therefore might be opportune for an urgent national confab involving the Guyana Fire Service and all relevant stakeholders, to draft an emergency plan to reduce the frequency, intensity, and impact of conflagrations consuming properties and causing devastation for so many people.
Guyana historically seems prone to sudden eruptions of flaming infernos consuming buildings, with raging fires all too frequently flaring up in homes and businesses, all too often completely flattening the structures, leaving sadness and losses in their wake. It used to be that the country’s building stock was mostly wooden structures, and hence fires devoured the wood like dry stubble. However, even today, with modern concrete buildings dominating the landscape, fires continue to wreak havoc in the lives of too many Guyanese per year.
The Guyana Fire Service just got a new Fire Chief, Kalamadeen Edoo, following the retirement of former Chief Marlon Gentle, who had served the nation for an admirable 36 years. Government has allocated $1.9 billion in the 2021 National Budget for the Fire Service, a sum that includes relocating the nation’s Central Fire Station from its long-time perch adjacent to the crowded Stabroek Market, to Eccles, along with purchasing two new fire ambulances and six more water tenders. This year, also, the Fire Service is commissioning additional fire stations at Lethem, Mabaruma and Mahdia, with 50 more fire fighters trained and deployed.
Fire-safety drills used to be a regular activity around the country, in schools, and public buildings, with the Fire Service conducting education programmes to train and sensitise the public on how to exit a building in the case of a threatening fire. Indeed, Fire Prevention Week has played a big role in the life of Guyanese over the years. Maybe because of the memory in the nation’s history of the Great Fire of February 23, 1945, which wiped out the commercial district of Georgetown, including destroying a wide swath of iconic historical architectures, burning flat 23 buildings and raging for five hours, including the biggest business places around at the time, and also a building housing historical books and documents of the country’s history, the nation takes fire prevention seriously.
In a report on February 24, 1945, the Daily Chronicle newspaper then reported: “Fed by a strong northeasterly wind, the fire reached its peak around five p.m. with thick black smoke billowing thousands of feet up, and exploding chemical containers sending up sheets of flame in all directions.
“Starting in the second storey of Bookers Drug Store the flames quickly enveloped the four-storey building and a crowd of thousands watched in awe as a wall of fire rolled across the street to the Assembly Rooms. Against this raging inferno firemen fought a losing battle, and in quick succession Bookers Garage, the District Administration Office and the G.P.O. were engulfed. “Fire hoses looked like water pistols as they played feeble jets against this mass of burning buildings, which made the sun glow red before it was blotted out by an overhanging curtain of smoke. “Leaping from building to building, the fire assumed alarming proportions, sweeping two blocks to Robb Street and same distance west to Water Street, menacing the entire business area. Five concrete and metal buildings saved Georgetown from a greater catastrophe. As the fire spread north from the Assembly Rooms, the Hand-in-Hand first formed the break, and the Brigade was able to confine the fire to that square. Its destructive path along Hincks Street through the G.P.O. and the “Daily Argosy” was blocked by the B.G. & Trinidad Mutual building. The fire continued down Robb Street to the Royal Bank where the steel shutters and brick walls again halted its progress.
“Sweeping in an arc along the north side of Company Path and on both sides of Water Street, it razed the Reading Rooms, Geddes Grant Ltd., the 5 & 10 Cents Store, Sandbach Parker’s, and here Barclays Bank stopped it. While both sides of Water Street burned, the two banks offered the Brigade an opportunity for the first time, of getting control of the conflagration. Its course west along Church Street was checked by the metal frame of the Stone Depot.” That is in the historic memory of this country. In an inquiry on the origin of that fire, it was determined that carelessness around the storage and operation of drums of alcohol caused the inferno.
This is instructive for today’s Guyana, because quite a few of the fires that happen these days stem from either faulty electrical wiring, or, in too many cases, arson, and other small accidental mistakes, such as starting fires in an open space, something former Fire Chief Gentle had warned the nation to completely guard against and to never do.
In fact, fires seem to start from small, simple mistakes, apart from arson, of course, which is a special case and is addressed as a criminal act.
What is clear, is that this country needs to fully engage the public in a constant fire-prevention and fire education and sensitising agenda, not only rolling out education materials on how to escape a building on fire, but also how to guard against doing anything that could cause an inferno. Last month, the Fire Service performed with excellence to prevent a major disaster in the heart of busy Georgetown, when it was able to extinguish a budding blaze at the Fogarty’s building on Water Street. That fired started in the rush hour, around 09:00hrs, and would have caused untold panic in the downtown core, with the General Post Office, the museum, and other key buildings in close proximity to it.
Guyanese seem to need this national fire-prevention structure as a national safety precaution. Thus, the Guyana Fire Service has its work cut out to inculcate in its operation a national programme to engage people, across every strata of the society, on the seriousness of the situation.