Fire! Unity in Adversity in Bali

June 19, 2011

I am the first to admit that some of my articles have been less than complimentary about certain local practices. Not because of any malicious intent, I hasten to add. It’s just that my bule eyes often see quirks, absurdities and inconsistencies that pique my ire, but seem perfectly normal to those in whose country we are guests. As John Milton nearly said about us foreigners: “We see Bali not as it is, but as we are”. Right on, John.

Yet other social imperatives here,  such as the sense of community spirit, are inspiring – partly because of their absence in the places we originally came from. We see people in Western cultures slowing down to gawk (but not stopping to help) at the scene of a car accident. We see them ignoring someone lying on the footpath in a diabetic coma, because, you know, they are ‘obviously’ drunk. We hear of people dying in their homes and being found weeks later, simply because minding your own business has become a matter of personal survival in the high-pressure societies many of us have left behind. The downside to this is that when we do start living in a selfish bubble, we lose some of our humanity.

Fortunately for a villa owner in my lane, the community spirit is alive and flourishing in Bali. A few days ago, while walking a departing guest out to the street, a commotion three doors up attracted my attention. A huge cloud of smoke began erupting from the front of a neighbourhood property, and large flames were already engulfing its carport roof. Two local residents were standing in the street, phones already in hand, while a third was struggling to open the villa gates. I know now that they were in fact the early-response team, rounding up help.

In the few seconds it took me to get to the scene, another thirty or so locals had arrived at a dead run. Without pausing, they rolled back the gates of the villa and dashed in to appraise the situation. The flames had reached the plastic roof of the carport, which was well ablaze, dripping fiery molten plastic onto the three motorbikes parked below. Without a thought for their own safety, the impromptu brigade manhandled the bikes out into the street. Garden hoses, already spouting water, magically appeared from surrounding houses to be passed quickly to those at the fire-front. Other people, seeing that some hoses were too short, conjured up connectors from thin air.

Cardboard boxes stacked high in the carport were well alight, the flames licking at the main structure’s window frames and threatening to ignite the entire house. The lads of this instant fire crew worked together as if they were a well-drilled team with years of experience, some pulling burning boxes down with their bare hands to get to the seat of the fire, others dousing scattered debris. They did all this while dodging the burning boxes toppling around them, avoiding cascades of hot polycarbonate streaming from the roof, and trying to keep the vicious eddies of glowing embers away from their eyes. Despite the frenetic activity, not once did they get in the way of each other, working flawlessly as a single unit.

Fifteen minutes after it started, the fire was out and the team was concentrating on blacking out the hot-spots to ensure that the fire ground was safe. One hour later, the ‘real’ Fire Brigade arrived – or at least a shiny red patrol car did. The crew of that were still there a few hours later, poking and prodding the burnt remains, taking photographs and filling out forms. The other crew, the ones who actually put out the flames, were long gone – probably enjoying a well-deserved cool drink and telling each other tall stories.

As it happened, this was the very day that PLN (Bali’s sole provider of electrical energy) had selected our neighbourhood as the target of one of their regular six hour blackouts – its load-shedding ‘solution’ for their woefully inadequate capacity problem. As a result, the villa’s emergency electrical generator was running. Well, maybe not quite as its makers intended, because it caught fire. I don’t think that’s supposed to happen. Once the flammable materials stacked around it ignited, a potential disaster was in the making.

Fortunately, it was averted. The heroes of the day were just ordinary, local guys in the neighbourhood. It didn’t matter to them that the villa owner was a foreigner who was not in Bali at the time. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t their house. They responded automatically, saved three bikes and probably the villa too. They may even have saved the life of the pembantu in residence, who might well have been trapped by the conflagration blocking the only exit. Their quick and effective action may even have saved our entire row of six villas. Not one of them had a stitch of protective clothing – just a natural and unhesitating protectiveness towards others in their community, the desire and ability to act decisively, and heaps of raw courage.

Guys, I salute you. This what community spirit is all about, and I feel privileged to have witnessed it.




  1. What a great story Borborigmus,

  2. I saw the same situation up in north India years ago. Thanks for the reminder of community spirit..

  3. Are these ‘early response’ guys trained/official at all, or are they just nearby residents helping out? If they are a set ‘early response’ team, I would like to try and help them out. I run a Fire Station here in (cold as hell at the moment) Brisbane, and will be coming over to Bali mid-late August. If they are a set team, I could try and wrangle some protective clothing for them at least, and will try to make it more in the future. Pls let me know ASAP.

    BTW, great posts 🙂

    • They were just neighbours helping out. The official ‘early response’ unit arrived an hour after the fire started, but in all fairness, they could well have already been notified by someone that the situation was under control. The duties of the official guys that arrived later might have been to ensure that black-out ops were properly carried out. On the rare occasions I have seen a real appliance here, it has been stuck in traffic.

      The other problem is, nobody seems to know what emergency number to call … but that’s Bali.

      • Oh well, I can’t kit out everyone in every neighbourhood. Too bad.
        I did a bit of research on the Bali “Fire Brigade”… thought I might drop in pay them a visit, but after reading about them……

        Bit of a pity really. So now I’ll just spend our time there doing the touristy things like the Ocean Walk, Canyon Tubing etc. Someone should really set up another Bali Skydive business and do jumps into Lake Batur!!

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