Fire – But What Happens After The Inferno?

December 9, 2011

The heat is sapping at just past mid-day, and I’m finding it hard to focus on work. The pool beckons, and it’s a toss-up between a cooling dip and just drifting off for an early siesta. A waft of smoke blows into the villa, its mixed aromas of burning leaves, wood and plastic creating a surge of annoyance. I snarl. The neighbours are burning garbage again. How inconsiderate.

But it’s not a rubbish fire at all. The smoke intensifies, and from my distant past as a volunteer fire-fighter comes an olfactory memory I prefer to forget. I recognise the unmistakably acrid smell of a dwelling on fire. By this stage, there is panicked shouting, and by the time I throw some clothes on and get outside, the air is thick with smoke. My lane is only fifty metres long, but I can’t see more than ten metres in front of me. Last June a neighbouring villa caught fire, but swift action by locals, who rushed selflessly to help, prevented a calamity.

This time, there is no chance of that. Eyes streaming and handkerchief pressed over my nose, I struggle to the end of the lane and see that the little warung on the corner is well alight. No-one can get close because of the radiant heat, collapsing roof timbers and explosions of flammables. The people in the villa behind the burning warung are mobilising with garden hoses, but this seems like such a puny defence. I am hoping fervently that no-one is trapped inside, because survival would be impossible.

Once around the corner, I get a clearer view and am shocked to see that not one, but all seven shops in the small block between my lane and the next are well ablaze. Shop owners are desperately trying to salvage valuables and stock. They seem to be risking their lives for mere goods – but the reality is that it’s not just things they are trying to save, it is their livelihood. As the toxic fumes thicken and swirl and I start to feel faint, I belatedly remember the dangers of smoke inhalation . After a sudden whomp! as a gas bottle explodes, spraying bits of shrapnel and belching great gouts of flame, I beat an undignified but sensible retreat to safety.

Miraculously, the fire brigade arrives within ten minutes and the scene transforms from chaotic panic into a well-organised drill. The Bali fireys are great, quickly assessing the fireground, checking for anyone trapped, rolling out the hoses and wasting no time in getting water on the fire. They are efficient, calm and relaxed.

They haven’t lost their sense of humour either. One of them has a momentary problem with the water cannon perched on top of his fire truck, accidentally swivelling it down as he struggles with a control to start the flow. As the valve snaps open, the sudden water blast from the misdirected nozzle scores a direct hit between the shoulder blades of his commander standing on the road in front. He is the first to burst out laughing at this unexpected incident. Maybe that’s why he’s called an incident commander. But I’m glad no-one takes a photo – the sight of firemen cackling uncontrollably while fighting a serious blaze would no doubt have been gleefully seized on by certain sections of the Australian anti-Bali media.

A little white car, which I have often seen parked in an awkward position at the entrance to the lane, is blocking access to the extra appliances that are now arriving. It’s also in danger of either catching fire itself, or being crushed should the wall of the building collapse. After unsuccessful attempts to locate the owner, the police, who are now in attendance, decide to shift the car. I am expecting use of a cunning, ‘police-only’ method of quickly breaking in to the locked vehicle. But no, they elect to use a ‘master key’ instead. A Bali master key apparently consists of an enthusiastically-wielded axe, which makes short work of the laminated side window, and the car is quickly pushed out of the way.

Frankly, if this approach was used on all badly-parked cars in Bali, the entire parking chaos problem would be solved overnight.

Finally, after an hour, the main fire is out. The crew is on mop-up duties and the police are sealing off the scene with yellow tape. Neighbours and shop owners are standing silently by the side of the road, staring in shock at the devastation. Fire-blackened, saturated goods lie in dismal piles on what is left of shop floors. Warped and melted roller shutters form grotesque sculptures; sad monuments to lost livelihoods. A cell-phone shop owner clutches the few boxes she has managed to save and stares fixedly into the ashes of her dreams.

At night, the scene is even more surreal. As I return from dinner, I ride past fifty or so people sitting silently on the opposite footpath, staring into the still-smoking ruins. I recognise some of the local shop owners, but no-one is in the mood for conversation. Apart from a small police presence, the rest of the onlookers seem to be family or friends. Perhaps they are there to give moral support, maintain some sort of vigil or pray. Maybe they’re just there to ensure that the wreckage of their lives is not made worse by overnight looting.

Few of the affected would have had insurance. For most of them, loss of their shops means complete loss of their livelihood. What little money these people have is tied up in stock. They subsist on their meagre revenues, which have now disappeared. What do they do now? Will their banjar offer financial support? Are there other sources of community assistance? Should I, as a neighbour, offer assistance? Is there a local disaster fund? If I donate money, or raise money from others who would like to help, how do I ensure that it gets to those affected without it vanishing into the pockets of ‘commission-takers’ or other opportunists?

It has taken an event like this to bring home to me how coddled I am as an expat. I take insurance cover for granted and I can afford smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. I understand the risks of unattended candles and incense, and I don’t have to use dangerous spirit stoves or dodgy gas bottles. But in my local community, I am probably in the minority.

And I am ashamed to realise that I have lived here for nearly three years and I still have not made the effort to learn how local communities cope in times of personal traumas like this. Sad, isn’t it?



  1. This sounds like a job for Superborb!
    On with the cape and mask and leap to work.

    • No mask, no cape – no leaping off tall buildings performing unwanted acts of do-gooderism. Just curious, just asking the questions. I am sure that there are invisible (to me) levels of Balinese society that address the answers – at least I hope so!

  2. Just my 2 cents. First of all family members quickly come to join the victims and to prevent looting. If the big family in the background is enough wealthy it will help with money. Sometimes small shop owners are surprisingly wealthy and are able to cope with such a difficult financial situation, but this is not the norm.

    I don’t know enough about banjars, but some shop owners might come from other parts of Bali so they probably can’t expect help from the local banjar. But at least they will be able to get a cheap credit so they can find their way back into business.

    Why locals rarely have insurances? Simple answer: because they can’t trust them, can’t rely on them. An easy game in a country with zero consumer protection. BTW would be great to set up a powerful national-wide website in Bahasa with professional product tests and consumer reviews.

    • Interesting points on family and banjar support. Thanks!
      Re the website: In principle, a good idea. In practice, it takes time and money to do this properly. I suspect that any company that invested capital in something like this (without any possibility of user-revenue in Indonesia) would quickly be subverted by special interest groups wanting to push their own agendas.

  3. This is near the River yes? Nakula/padma timur? What a devastating image it was.. That mobile shop.. the warung.. I get my laundry done next door (thankfully) they werent effected but god it bought a fair few tears to my eyes.

    Re giving money, I was thinking the same thing I want to but my partner advised against it – too proud or jealous.. Im not sure but if you sort out a way to give money to the owners then please comment back and Ill send a few million your way 🙂

    • Yes near the river, in Jl. Bisma, behind the Puri Dewa Bharata hotel. Rebuilding work seems to be proceeding slowly. Your partner may well be right – the community seems to be sorting itself out. Your very generous offer is probably best left un-donated. It is never good to be visibly generous here, because it just seems to spark a ‘cargo-cult’ reaction where everyone rushes forward with their hand out. Sound cruel, doesn’t it – but it might be illuminating to talk to expats who have had their well-meaning generosity abused to the max.

      An interesting observation was made by a couple of locals today – they said a police report on the fire (which is necessary to make an insurance claim) can be obtained by locals by paying a bribe of about 50,000. However, they claimed that one of the foreigners affected had no such luck in obtaining a report – unless he paid a bribe of 100 million which was demanded by the police. I really, really hope that this is misinformation, or a local urban myth, because if it is not, the scale of corruption in Bali has reached the same level as that in Jakarta.

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