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TALKING DRUM: When I read about Yarnell Hill Fire

According to the Arizona Republic, news media, “it is the worst firefighting tragedy ever in Arizona [US], eclipsing the 1990 Dude Fire near Payson, which claimed six firefight­ers.

“It was the worst wild-land firefight­ing tragedy in US history since 25 [people] were killed in the Griffith Park Fire in Los Angeles in 1933.”

Indeed, the uncontrollable fire that caught up with the hamlet of about 500 homes had most of these homes reduced to billowing smokes. The town, on a hill, named Yarnell will forever mourn this day as the fire began early Friday evening, and by Sunday the fire had spread to more than 2,000 acres. But that was not all. The Yarnell Hill Fire, as it razed down properties, had also claimed the precious lives of some 19 wild-land firefighters.

This was the story that won the Arizona Republic news the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for ‘Breaking News’ reporting. However sad the Yarnell Hill Fire read, I got marveled because “as the Yarnell Hill Fire continued to rage uncontrolled, Arizona officials launched an investigation to find out how a fast, erratic wildfire killed 19 Prescott Hotshot firefighters and whether the tragedy could have been averted.”

Certainly, what pertains in my country, Ghana, is a direct opposite to what happened in Arizona on June 30, 2013. In Arizona were serious minds at play as the then officials there did not wait for the fire to be doused before setting up a committee, invite the media for briefings and then go work in comfort.

The investigation was done alongside the dousing of the Yarnell Hill Fire as a set of new firefighters was brought in to help.

Dean Smith watches as the Yarnell Hill Fire encroaches on his home

On Saturday, April 22, 2017, I was on the campus of the Ghana Institute of Journalism to meet someone I needed to interview for a radio feature. Just as I was done with the interview, my phone buzzed. I could not answer the call. When I called back, the person said she intended breaking the news of Dr. Papa Kwesi Nduom’s Regency Hotel Compound catching fire to me. I was shocked.

When I got to the Ghana Immigration Service area, I saw three fire tenders speeding to the said fire scene. A number of people who had gathered around watching the thick dark smoke snaking into the sky were optimistic the fire would be doused with ease considering the alacrity of the firefighters.

The Ghana National Fire Service (GNFS) had called for reinforcement from the fire department of the Ghana Air Force. However, two hours after their attempt, the fire still showed its prowess that it is a force to reckon with.

On social media were a barrage of jabs all directed at the Ghana National Fire Service for seemingly failing to douse the fire. For many Ghanaians, the excuse by the Service that it had had a shortage of water got them crazy. “A whole Ghana National Fire Service always complaining about running out of water is sickening,” read a comment on Facebook.

Indeed, I share the sentiments of those who blasted the Ghana National Fire Service. But to a large extent, we as a people must share the blame of this poor performance of the Fire Service. My argument on Facebook was simple. That, the problems of our country should be shared among the media, politicians and the citizenry in giving the media a sizeable portion.

This is not the first time the Ghana National Fire Service has been hit with shortage of water. So my question is, do the workers of the fire service drink the water meant for the dousing of fires? Planners of our cities were wise enough to have built a number of water hydrants

But what do we see? Many are the citizens of our land who have built their shops on these water hydrants. Then when there is a fire outbreak and the GNFS does not get to use the hydrants we turn to point accusing fingers. Our attitude as a people is so horrible that if we do not change our ways we will always be tickling ourselves to death. A week before the fire outbreak at Dr. Nduom’s offices, there was this news circulating on social media that a gas explosion had occur somewhere at Michel Camp, here in the Greater Accra region. When I called the PRO of the GNFS, Prince Billy Anaglate, he told me he had sent his men to the said location and that he would confirm to me the authenticity of the ‘explosion’ report when he hears from his emissaries.

Later on, the story turned out to be a hoax. Someone had succeeded not only deceiving but fooling public officers. I asked myself, ‘what do people gain from this kind of act?’ The irony here is that, next time, someone might call the GNFS to alert them of a fire and the fireman acting from his past experience will ask him/her ‘are you sure your house is on fire?’

We play too much in this country and the politicians who are supposed to protect us often tend to fail us. And the media that is supposed to put these politicians to checks, at times, forget about their role. Now every issue is publicized that after discussions in the media we hardly get solutions to our problems.

Today, it is Dr. Papa Kwesi Nduom’s business at the mercy of fire. For whose turn it will be tomorrow, only God knows. But, if we are to sit down and reason to reflect the big certificates we have acquired, we can collectively help prevent another misfortune from befalling an innocent person.

Let us put in place good policies. If it is about making the GNFS, or the National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO) or any other institution strong, let us do so by putting to work concrete measures. Government must be bold to eject and demolish structures say on water hydrants or on water ways without fearing losing the next election. If it is about non-performing officials, let them be sacked.

The Whiteman is but a human being like us. They just think into the future and make plans to prevent a previous misfortune entangling them again.

The findings into the possible causes of the deaths in the Yarnell Hill Fire among other things said that the demised firefighters were well trained for their job. The fire only caught up with them partly because radio communication between them and their team got interrupted and their exact location at the scene was hard to be determined by the team due to fluctuations in the weather. This disaster they have vowed will not reoccur.

By Solomon Mensah

The writer is a broadcast journalist with 3FM 92.7. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect 3FM’s editorial policy.

Email: nehusthan4@yahoo.com

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