Lucy Sebli

Signs of a poorly understood but treatable house fire requires action, not inaction.

Dr Graciela Chichilnisky, Argentine-American mathematical economist

As the year draws to a close, we welcome the New Year! Friends and families alike congregate at one place to celebrate the beginning of the New Year. Meals are cooking, the chicken is roasting, the cookies and cakes are baking, the children are laughing and singing with glee, and relatives from far away are just pulling up at the front yard.

By nightfall, we gather at the dining room table and tell each other of how last year has treated us, as we savour the food and the moment. This time of the year is the time that we all have waited for, the chance to reunite and spend time with our loved ones at our longhouse. 

However, recent cases of longhouse fires have deeply concerned me, as this is a problem that strikes close to home. Personally, our longhouse is 45 kilometres from the nearest fire station, and thus the members of our longhouse do everything in their might to avoid any fire accidents.

Most other longhouses are no different, some longhouses further in the interior are more at risk. This is because these longhouses are not connected to the main road, and are a challenge to reach, due to the lack of infrastructure development. 

This year alone, as of August, there have been a reported total of 14 longhouse fires, leaving more than 1,300 villagers homeless. Twelve of the cases happened within the proximity of 30 to 187 kilometres while the other two cases were less than 15 kilometres from the nearest fire station.

According to a Bernama report, so far, four injuries and one death have been recorded, with an estimated loss of more than RM10 million.

There might be even more unreported cases of longhouse fires. However, since the affected longhouses are further in the interior areas, there is no way of knowing the exact number of longhouse fires. If the recent longhouse fires are of any indicator, it shows that this issue is only getting worse. 

Recently, Sarawak Fire And Rescue assistant operations director Tiong Ling Hii reported that the common culprits of longhouse fires were cooking, followed by power overload.

To make matters worse, some other factors that contribute to this ever so growing problem is the distance of fire hydrants and fire stations from the longhouse (or lack thereof), the traditional longhouse design, the lack of safety features, as well as the material used for the construction of the longhouse. 

Another issue is that most of the longhouse residents lack the knowledge to deal with fire-related hazards. Additionally, it is quite alarming to find out that out of 4,000 longhouses in Sarawak, only two are equipped with at least one fire extinguisher. 

On a more positive note, to tackle this connectivity problem, the government has pledged RM4.5 billion for the coming year to develop the infrastructure of the interior areas. The government has also proposed the construction of several fire stations near rural settlements, as a signal to acknowledge the severity of this issue. 

Those who reside in longhouses must also be aware of the dos and don’ts when it comes to avoiding longhouse fires.

Firstly, one must also make sure that the power circuit or power outlet is not overloaded. This goes for electrical extensions as well, the main wire of the electrical extension mustn’t be bound when in use, as this can lead to overheating of the electrical extension. Electrical wires must also be inspected for any deep cuts or nicks, as these can too lead to overheating, and eventually will catch fire.

One must also make sure as to not place hot pots or woks atop the natural gas tanks, as these may lead to explosions. The kitchen stove must also be inspected every two to three months to make sure none of the mechanisms within the stove is faulty.

At times, a dirty stove may inhibit complete flame combustion, giving way to tall, orange-yellow flames. These flames could easily set ablaze flammable, hard to reach, surrounding objects, and may have devastating consequences. 

To resolve the problem of longhouse fires, all stakeholders must be more vigilant to ensure the safety of the longhouse. As the saying goes, “better safe than sorry”, and thus, we longhouse residents must do everything in our power to help avoid longhouse fires, so that we may be able to enjoy many more festivities with our loved ones at the longhouse. 

With that, I wish you all a Happy New Year. 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.