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Malawi’s never-ending fire accidents

DESTROYED—Some of the items at Mzuzu Market

Malawi is on fire—literally. If it is not looters setting fires on the streets during demonstrations, then you can be certain of a fire accident somewhere, especially at marketplace. In this Friday Shaker, PETER KANJERE looks at some high-profile fire accidents and asks whether the absence of Fire Act is one of the major reasons cases of five incidents are on the increase in Malawi, destroying lives and property.

This year alone, there have been serious fire accidents reported across the country.

Fire razed down part of Mzuzu Market on Monday destroying property and leaving owners in near destitution.

In April 2019, a similar accident occured in Blantyre, where Grand and Grill Bar along the M1 Road in Chirimba was razed down.

FLASHBACK—Nico House on fire

This was also the case last October, when an inferno damaged Nico House in Blantyre, months after Zomba Flea Market was destroyed in similar circumstances.

As for Mzuzu, fire accidents have been happening with worrying regularity.

Valiwess Phiri, a gateman at the market, suspects an electrical fault started the fire on Monday.

“I noticed some sparks of fire on one of the electricity poles inside the market when I was doing my inspection. I called fellow guards who called Mzuzu City Council Fire Brigade, who put out the fire after some minutes,” he told The Daily Times.

The market’s crafts centre chairperson, Bauleni Nkhoma, said the fire destroyed a lot of items; hence, her appeal to well-wishers to assist the victims.

“A lot of items have been burnt and this has affected many business people because they depend on their businesses for their day-to-day survival. We would really ask people to support us with anything,” he said.

In October 2015, fire also destroyed the market near the bus terminal. It was the third fire accident registered in the city that year.

The then Mzuzu City deputy mayor, Frazer Chunga, questioned Mzuzu City Council fire-fighters’ capacity to deal with fire accidents, saying they lacked resources.

“The city was also poorly designed, giving no room for fire-fighters to do their work efficiently,” Chunga told The Daily Times edition of October 16 2015.

As for last year’s incident, Zomba City Council spokesperson, Mercy Chaluma, told the media that they suspected that an electrical appliance, which was not attended to, caused the fire.

Media reports estimated that such fires cost property worth K1.6 billion for 2,000 vendors in Zomba and Mzuzu between 2004 and 2014.

Alarmed by the extent of the damage, President Peter Mutharika instituted a ministerial committee to establish the causes of market fires after Mzuzu and Tsoka flea markets in Lilongwe, respectively, were destroyed on July 13 and 29.

Similar accidents occurred in Balaka, Blantyre and Mangochi.

The committee’s report established that arson and carelessness caused such accidents between 2004 and 2014, with property worth K16 billion estimated to have been lost.

It recommended establishment of modern markets to accommodate vendors.

As for the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) Power House incident in Blantyre, investigators hired to establish the cause of the fire, which happened on October 18 2013, failed to establish what caused it and ruled out foul play.

Escom hired Incedium Fire Investigation of South Africa to investigate the incident.

“The physical evidence, considered with the reported version of events as relayed by occupants of the payroll office and security guard, indicated that the fire had possibly resulted from an electrical failure/overheating of an electrical multi-plug adapter or its serving wiring, by virtue of the fact that it had reportedly been energised during the fire and located in close proximity to suitable combustible material. The pre-fire status of the electrical appliances could not be verified due to the listed constraints and the fire cause is classified as undetermined,” the report reads.

Sadly, law enforcers at Blantyre Police, according to its spokesperson Augustus Nkhwazi, are still investigating the actual cause of the Escom and Nico fire accidents.

“As regards to accidental fires that occurred at Escom House and Nico House in Blantyre, please be advised that police investigators are still pursuing the two cases where undisclosed property worth millions of kwacha were destroyed. The public shall be duly informed of the causes of the said fire accidents when investigations have been concluded,” Nkhwazi said during the week.

Blantyre City Council (BCC) Public Relations Manager, Anthony Kasunda, said they respond to an average of 20 emergency fire calls every month.

“Common causes of fire accidents are poor insulation in homes resulting in short circuits, electrical equipment left connected to electricity for a long period, poor wiring system/illegal connections mainly in markets, candles left unattended to, cooking utensils left on the cooker due to power outage, among others,” Kasunda said.

BCC has 10 fire engines but Kasunda admitted that “most of the time, not all are functional.”

“Measures to minimise fire accidents include periodic fire safety inspections in companies and factories to check on fire safety compliance, training/ drills of employees from the industries and factories in first aid and fire-fighting, fire safety awareness campaign in schools so that learners are equipped with fire safety skills, refurbishment of fire hydrants around the city,” he said.

In Zomba, Chaluma said the council has four fire engines although only two are in working condition.

HANDICAPPED—Firefighters

From all these incidents it is clear that city councils do not enough to enforce safety regulations and, even if they did, lack of Fire Act means penalties are weak.

Therefore, one major contributing factor to the perennial problem fires could be lack of the Act, a blueprint on how Malawi can prevent and protect itself from risks which fire accidents pose.

Lilongwe City Council Fire Brigade Chief Fire Officer, Robert Jiya, told The Daily Times in June 2019 that the absence of such an Act makes fire-fighting challenging in Malawi.

Such an Act provides guidelines on welfare of fire officers, resulting in non-compliant institutions and establishments being either fined or closed.

Efforts to come up with the Act date back to 1998, when British Fire Engineers, alongside fire brigades from all cities in Malawi, formed Chief and Assistant Chief Fire Officers Association (CACFOA).

“The organisation is struggling to come up with requirements of a Fire Act. Our last meeting was held in Kasungu way back in 2011. During the meeting, it was agreed by all regional fire brigades for each city council to draw articles that CACFOA would finally incorporate into a final draft of Fire Act,” Jiya told The Daily Times.

“CACFOA was of the view that its draft would be taken and presented to Parliament through [the Ministry of] Local Government. To this point, it means the probable articles are still in the hands of individual city councils, if they were drafted at all.”

Additionally, the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) does not explain clearly measures it has in place to minimize cases of fire accidents.

Dodma’s mandate is to “develop national standards and operational guidelines for conducting comprehensive disaster risk assessments that are in accordance with international standards and best practices.”

Perhaps Malawi needs such an Act urgently to ensure compliance and punish those that fail to go by the law.

Most countries in Southern Africa have such Acts. In Botswana, for example, Airforce manages fire brigade.

In South Africa, an individual or organisation can be fined over K500,000 or be jailed for over two years for failing to comply with fire safety regulations.

“If the chief fire officer finds that such provisions are not being complied with, he may issue to the owner of those premises, or his authorised agent, a written instruction to comply with the provisions in question within the period mentioned therein,” reads South Africa’s Fire Brigade and Services Act.

Meanwhile, in the absence of such an Act in Malawi, you can always brace for yet another fire accident. Somewhere.

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