By Tessy Igomu
Lagos residents were jolted early on December 25, 2016, when the news broke that the Nigerian Breweries plant at Iganmu was on fire. The Christmas Day inferno destroyed a section of the company as well as thousands of bottles of beer. No life was lost.
On the same day, as Christians went to the church to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, a section of Kara Market, near Berger on the Lagos-Ibadan Expressway, also went up in flames. Dozens of stalls were razed, and there are fears that more of such incidents might be recorded across the country as the harmattan season lingers.
Indeed, in all parts of Nigeria at the moment, the arid, dusty air of harmattan announces its arrival. For a few weeks each year, the winds move southwards from the Sahara Desert, drying West Africa’s air and smudging its skies with grit. While it lasts, the dusty haze obscures the horizon, blots out buildings in the cities and the hinterlands, and grounds planes.
The harmattan season is a time when many Nigerians, especially those in rural areas, are forced to huddle around blazing logs to ward off the cold. As its presence dominates West Africa’s plains, lush, green vegetation and grassy savannah shrivel up. trees and other structires are coated in brown dust, people dive under blankets to get temporary reprieve from the cold and romance is rekindled among couples, as they tend to cling and cuddle more at night.
Expectedly, the harmattan season lowers humidity and prevents rainfall formation, while its adverse signs are also seen in dry skins, patched lips and cracked soles. Several airborne diseases caused by fecal matter and microbes are also carried by the cold wind.
Even though the season gives Nigerians temporary reprieve from the excruciating heat that torments them owing to epileptic power supply, it is always accompanied by a hazardous servant: fire.
Fire outbreaks have remained a major disaster wreaking unquantifiable havoc on lives and property globally. Harmattan influences the susceptibility of many areas to fire, as the dry wind tends to increase the severity of combustion.
November to March of every year is usually disaster-prone, with infernos making unwelcome visits to marketplaces, factories, homes and schools. Lagos on its own played host to the fiery foe on Christmas Day when a section of the Nigerian Breweries was engulfed by flames. It took the combined efforts of rescue managers and responders to avert what would have been a major calamity.
According to the Director, Lagos State Fire Services, Razaq Fadipe, most of the disasters witnessed during this period are majorly caused by human error.
He disclosed that in January 2016, a period when harmattan was usually at its peak, 258 fire incidents were recorded, with Lagos Mainland having the highest number of incidents. He, however, said Lagos was not an isolated case, as various parts of the country also paid host to the fiery foe.
Investigations have shown that most fire outbreaks during the season are caused by careless handling of highly inflammable materials by adults and children. Also, the complacent attitude of people when handling items susceptible to fire had in the past led to losses running into millions of naira.
Causes of fire outbreaks during this volatile season have been traced to the hoarding of petrol in homes to beat shortages, and the unsupervised use of firecrackers by children. Bush burning, especially in agrarian communities, has also been identified as a major culprit, as dry wind blows the fire out of control, spreading it to settlements.
Before the Lagos State government clamped down on gated streets, forcing most residents to dismantle their gates permanently, fire fighters always had a herculean task trying to gain access to sites of fire disasters. Often, before the gates were forced open, the lifetime labour of many people would have been razed to the ground.
Congestion has also been identified as another factor militating against the success of combating fires, especially in a city like Lagos. Tejusoho market, before it was gutted by fire, was densely congested. There was scant space for buyers to move around to make purchases. At the time when sparks were sighted in the market, there was no room for the fire trucks to move in and put out the inferno. That impediment contributed largely to the total destruction of the market in the blaze that lasted many hours.
Fire disasters strike every day in Nigeria, but combating them has been a major challenge for fire fighters. Each fire outbreak, especially during this dry period, exposes Nigeria’s poor state of preparedness for prevention, control and management of fires. In the opinion of many, the scorecard of Nigeria’s fire fighters at this time is dismal.
One major contributor to the spread of fire during the harmattan season is the ill-equipped state and federal fire services. Starved of funds and left with obsolete machines in their fire stations across the nation, fire fighters, like the victims, lack the wherewithal to prevent the spread of harmattan fire. The neglect of the fire service over the years has aided economic losses running into billions of naira.
Experts and other Nigerians have been suggesting ways of preventing fire outbreaks in the country.
Paying attention to the needs of the fire service by providing them with modern fire-fighting equipment and periodical trainings would encourage prompt response to emergencies and reduce losses, it has been suggested.
Many have also suggested that budgets allocated to the fire service should be increased considerably to reflect on personnel’s hazard allowance, while sufficient awareness should be created to instil a culture of safety in Nigerians.
Intensifying public enlightenment efforts to educate people on the dos and don’ts of the harmattan period is another way to reduce fire outbreaks during this dry time.
Speaking on the preparedness of the Lagos State Fire Service, Fadipe disclosed that the outfit had long been modified to respond promptly to fire incidents, adding that the best approach to fight fire is prevention.
“Caution is the watchword,” he said. “The Lagos State Fire Service is fully equipped with modern fire-fighting equipment to cope with emergencies. We have fire vehicles with 10,000-litre water installed capacity. Sixty fire vehicles and five new rapid intervention fire vehicles are part of the efforts put in place by the Lagos State government to make the response to fire incidents prompt and effective. Training of officials has also become a key part of our policy,” he stated.
He also advised Lagos residents to be safety-conscious by being viable agents in the exercise to ensure a fire-free environment.
Giving useful tips on how to safeguard against fire outbreaks, he said: “Fire accidents can happen through arson, accident or by carelessness. People have to be safety-conscious by ensuring that they switch off all electrical appliances and points in their homes before they go out and in their offices when they close for the day. For those using generators, they should ensure their generators are not refuelled while working.
“Also, people should ensure that their gas cylinders are not put in the kitchen. It must be placed outside, far from the heat in the kitchen. People should avoid smoking while lying down. Care must be taken to avoid overloading electrical sockets. If you plug your DVD and television and you still plug your refrigerator in the same place, it is risky and can cause a fire outbreak. Very importantly, children should not be allowed to play with matches or naked light.”
The Lagos State Government has also advised residents to handle naked fire with utmost care to help forestall fire outbreaks during this period.
Commissioner for the Environment, Dr. Babatunde Adejare, said the warning became extremely necessary as a result of the harmattan season being experienced in the state, which he noted would subside at the end of February.
He said: “As our environment becomes dusty and hazy with dryness to everything, including trees, wooden items, leaves and furniture, we urge residents to be extremely careful with fire outbreaks because fire is nobody’s friend.”
The commissioner also warned against bush and solid waste burning as well as the storage of petrol and other inflammable materials in homes, offices, shops and markets that could aid fire outbreak.
He also urged motorists to ensure that they have fire extinguishers in their vehicles and maintain speed limits, noting that the hazy weather condition has reduced visibility to less than 10 metres.