Screaming for answers

The picture above, taken by Bhutan Today, shows victims of the recent Chamkhar fire huddling around their possessions.

Look at that picture. It should make you feel grateful. The picture shows that the residents were able to save at least some of their belongings from the fire that engulfed entire houses. They seem to have rescued clothes, mattresses, blankets, tables, carpets, pots, cupboards and even a bukhari from the fire that destroyed 33 houses. Given the tragic circumstances, we should be grateful for that.

Look at that picture again. It should now make you feel frustrated. The picture shows that the fire could not be controlled even though so many people had the time to rescue so many of their belongings.

Most of the houses in Chamkhar town stand in a line along the main street. So it would have taken time for the fire to spread from one house to the next. It did – that’s why the residents could save so many of their possessions. And yet the fire could not be controlled, not until it reached a three-storied stone structure that prevented it from spreading further.

So why couldn’t the fire be put out earlier? Because Bumthang has only one fire-engine, a second-hand truck manufactured in 1998. What’s worse is that that fire-engine can carry only 10 minutes supply of water. In fact, at full blast, that fire engine uses up all its water in just 5 minutes.

The fire fighters actually almost bought the fire under control during its early stages. But their water ran out. And, because Chamkhar town has no fire hydrants, they had to leave to replenish their small stock of water. That’s when the fire went out of control.

Look at that picture one more time. It should make you angry. The picture shows that, in spite of the two earlier fires, we were not at all prepared to fight this fire.

About a year ago, in the Parliament, during last year’s budget discussions, and before the first Chamkhar fire, I had requested the government to increase funding for our fire fighting programmes. I had argued that our fire fighters need more and better fire-engines. But I had also proposed that, if the government could not buy new fire engines immediately, they should at least buy water tankers to support the existing fleet of fire engines.

Bumthang’s aging fire engine was no match for the three Chamkhar fires. But with support from a simple 9,000 litre water tanker they would have probably been able to control the fires before they wrecked so much damage and suffering to the people of Chamkhar.

Today, the government is trying to find out who caused the fire. The residents are convinced that the fire was not an accident. So they want to catch the person who set their town on fire. The perpetrator must be caught. And be bought to justice.

But the government has so far ignored another, perhaps more important, investigation. They need to find out why, after repeated warnings and fires, they had still not equipped our fire fighters adequately.

Look at that picture. It’s screaming for answers.