Longhouse fire: Are we fighting a losing battle?

Fire engulfs Rh Lepang Sayat in Engkilili, Lubok Antu.


By Nancy Nais

THE Sarawak Fire and Rescue (Bomba) Department recorded an alarming 24 cases of longhouse fire last year, literally every month, with an average of two cases each.

Not only a total of RM26 million were burnt into ashes, 414 families were left homeless.

As in July this year, the department has recorded nine incidents involving 128 ‘pintu’ (households), with one reported death and one injury.

Based on the department’s investigations and statistics, all 24 cases in 2018 and seven cases this year were accidents due to human negligence. The latest two fire cases, which occurred this month on July 15 and yesterday (July 18) are still under investigation.

The blaze at its height at Uma Bawang, Sungai Asap on April 15, 2019.

An example in one of the cases was a small fire that started in the kitchen at an unmonitored lit stove. Within minutes, the fire burst into flames and traveled quickly through the longhouse, growing to a spiraling vortex the size of the communal gallery.

Flames erupted out of the longhouse appearing like a fluttering red bird. When it is obviously too late to save the longhouse, villagers stood outside in the scorching heat of the flames, watching in horror and amazement as the shelter for more than two-hundred people shrank down to nothing.

The villagers lost almost all of their possessions, money, ancestral heirlooms and were rendered homeless.

Then, as usual, assistance in the form of food, clothing and household items from all sorts of organisations or individuals will be distributed to the victims immediately in the aftermath of the incident.

People may not realise that a loss of a longhouse is also a loss of cultural heritage because it is more than just a home, where family memories are made. It is also a place where family heirlooms and traditional crafts passed down from generation to generation are stored.

Furthermore when a longhouse is lost to fire, it takes time to rebuild it and for safety reasons, most wooden longhouses were rebuilt in concrete, forgoing the authenticity of the traditional structure.

While the worth of burnt properties could be estimated and become another Bomba statistic, the value of customary items and traditional artifacts to the family and the community as a whole can never be quantified.

So every time when a long house fire happens, we keep asking why this keep on happening.

Sarawak Bomba director Khirudin Drahman

Sarawak Bomba director Khirudin Drahman, clearly upset at the rate of longhouse fire incidents, said the department has been putting a lot of initiative to introduce and educate the communities on fire awareness, prevention and safety.

They have been moving aggressively from one place to another, mostly in the rural communities, with their Fire Safety Awareness and Prevention Programmes.

In some event, they collaborate with corporate companies such as Sarawak Energy Bhd and Petronas just to name a few, who have contributed fire extinguishers and firefighting equipment to the communities.

A longhouse folk learning how to use a fire extinguisher.

They’ve also constantly remind the communities on ‘precaution, prevention and protection’ (3P) approach as this can help to prevent more serious cases involving fire, which usually starts small and the 3L elements (lupa, lalai leka), hoping to reduce the number of cases until zero incident can be achieved in the future.

He acknowledged that fire safety awareness remains low in Sarawak, particularly in remote areas where community engagement towards curbing such catastrophes needs to increase.

The local community needs to seriously address fire safety and education to raise awareness among its members including children.

On the other hand, not all longhouses were totally burnt, as there were cases where the fire was extinguished by residents in the early stages. So this demonstrates the importance of educating and establishing community firefighters who are capable of controlling the early stages of fire.

Khirudin added that they need to work harder in changing in the community’s mindset on the importance of fire safety. It is crucial to continue pressing and reminding them that fire incident or tragedy never choose their victim.

As the saying goes, fire will happen anywhere, on anything and at anyone regardless of social status, race or location. — DayakDaily