Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Beware of harmattan fire

November to March is the traditional harmattan season in Nigeria; however, with the severe climate change being experienced around the world, it is difficult to say exactly when the season starts and ends. The season otherwise called dry season in our part of the world comes with dust and mist. As a result of the haze, visions are blurred as drivers cannot see far; even flights are delayed because of poor visibility. It is the time of year when children and adult alike suffer most from cold, cough, catarrh and conjunctivitis (an eye disease popularly referred to as Apollo in Nigeria). The weather is extremely hot during the day and harshly cold at night.  The phase is also the harvest and pre-planting season. When there is bountiful harvest, food becomes cheap. It is also the time of the year for festivities. Because there is no likelihood of rain disturbance and since it is a post-harvest period, many social functions such as marriages, burials, house warming and chieftaincy title celebrations are slated for the dry season. Christmas and New Year celebrations also fall within the period.
Ironically, what I enjoy most during harmattan is its coldness. It lures you to sleep even when there is no electricity to power your fan or air-conditioning system. However, the day the cold turns to heat, there is no sound sleep as the heat also comes in extreme measures. Sweltering takes over as pyjamas, night gowns and beddings are soaked with sweats. That is when you see some families sleeping out in the open daring mosquito bites and night marauders in order to catch a sound sleep. Those who could not sleep out open up their barricaded windows to let in some fresh air.
However, the most debilitating drawback of the harmattan is its incendiary proclivity.  A careless handling of fire in dry season can end up in monumental loss. Fire spreads quickly because the environment is full of excessive heat; unfortunately water is also in short supply during the season as rivulet, rivers, wells, rain and tap waters are in short supply.  Thus, any fire out of place is usually difficult to contain. My heart rends when I read about the numerous fire disasters recorded in the last few weeks. The November 8, 2012 firestorm at  Ogbosisi section of the Onitsha Bridgehead Market in Anambra State;  the December 8 conflagration at  Makurdi Ultra Modern Market which destroyed the administrative block that houses a Magistrate’s Court, banks as well as shops;  the December 15 hellhole at Owode Market, Offa in Kwara State;  the December 21 fire disaster that wreaked havoc on the warehouse of the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control in Oshodi, Lagos;  the December 26 blaze at Jankara Market in Lagos that claimed at least one life, about 12 buildings and over 40 cars; the December 27, 2012   inferno that gutted a section of the Hilltop Mansion of former President Olusegun Obasanjo;  the January 1 combustion that razed no fewer than 10 shops and five residential buildings at the Ikoku Spare Parts market in Diobu area of Port Harcourt,  Rivers State and a January 5, 2013 destruction of   a block of four flats located along Demonstration Road in Gwagwalada, a satellite town in the Federal Capital Territory. This is not forgetting the inferno that razed the voter registry unit of the National Independent Electoral Commission headquarters in Abuja on Monday, January 7.
These occurrences though heartrending, are not unpreventable and therefore cannot be categorised as natural disasters. Adhering to simple housekeeping procedures would have forestalled these catastrophes.   For instance, many of us indulge in illegal electricity connection, overloading of power sockets, and indifferent to putting off electrical appliances when leaving homes in the morning and offices in the evening. When there is an electrical spark, it often engulfs the building with attendant colossal damage. Also, our rural folk still cosset in bush burning in preparation for new farming season as well as to hunt for rodents. I witnessed a couple of such on the highway as I travelled back to Abuja last weekend.  Those who set these bushes on fire do so indiscriminately without any form of control. As fire rages, it consumes everything in its track – unharvested crops, wooden electric poles, houses, cars, among others.
Those setting refuse dumps on fire during harmattan without adequate control measures are also not helping the environment.   Not only are they polluting the atmosphere, they are also putting structures around the refuse dumpsites in danger of fire. This, I learnt, was what was responsible for the Ikoku Market fire in Port Harcourt on New Year’s Day.   The use of firecrackers during festivities has also proved to be very dangerous as it could spark unintended fire outbreak as well as cause deafness. This was experienced last Christmas. It is unfortunate that despite the government ban on the use of firecrackers, some shylock and scoundrel businessmen and women still managed to smuggle them into the country. Furthermore, those in the habit of storing petrol and other inflammable substances in their homes are inviting the wrath of fire.
This season, we all need to take safety precautions. Fire disasters are largely preventable. All it needs is for all and sundry to play their role well. Civic education is imperative to enlighten the public on how to prevent fire tragedies. The National Orientation Agency, the Federal and State Fire Services, National and State Emergency Management Agencies, the print and electronic media, all have a role to play to educate the public on how to prevent fire eruptions and when they do occur, how to respond to such emergencies. All car owners (both private and commercial), all offices and homes need to have fire extinguishers and know how to use them. Women using gas for domestic cooking need to be very careful this season.   Federal, state and local governments should adequately fund their fire services to proactively and timely respond to fire and other disasters. It is unfortunate that men of the Rivers State Fire Service could not respond to the Ikoku Spare Parts Market inferno because the tyres of the only available vehicle were reportedly damaged.  All fire service vehicles and machines need to be repaired and adequately stocked with water and other hydrants in order for them to respond to numerous emergencies. Our smoking friends should also learn to firmly extinguish their cigarette butts. Indiscriminate disposal of cigarette butts has been known to cause fire debacles. I wish us all a safer 2013.