Hell is imagined to be a dungeon of fire where the ‘wicked’ would be punished in the afterlife. Encouraged by religious doctrine, many are convinced that such a place exists. Whether one believes in that description or dismisses it as nonsense, hell can be many things. The state of one’s mind, for example, can be hell. Oblivious about the power one possesses to be great, hell can be an obsession with failures and doubts; a constant air of melancholy. It can also be the fears we allow to control our minds, which can manifest in physical suffering, because we are not brave enough to live our truth.

And then hell can be situations beyond our control. Like the fires that often ravage homes; flames and smoke threaten and sometimes take lives, make a mockery of one’s comfort and laugh at one’s incapability to stop or control the blaze while turning one’s material possessions to ashes. Anyone who is the victim of a fire is sure to have experienced some kind of hell.

Awakened around four in the morning and being told that there was a fire in the street was not what I’d imagine Wednesday morning would be. I heard children screaming and my initial concern was about the safety of the victims. Fortunately, all lives were saved. Occurrences like fires are not what most people spend their time preparing for. The people who lost their homes in Pike Street, Kitty, many who have since spent their time lingering in the street near the debris, seeking donations from kind strangers, unsure about what their next move would be, were no doubt caught by surprise and many are probably still in shock. Such events remind us that the power to predict the future is a gift that only a few extraordinary people may possess. And, certainly, if more of us had the power to perceive painful events before they transpired, many would be avoided.

As I stood and watched the houses burn, saddened for the families now homeless and helpless because there was nothing much I could do, I reminded myself that in order to survive unforeseen events, sometimes one must find calm in the midst of the storm; deliberately choose the silence to be stable enough to imagine that there is a path ahead. After some setbacks, it is often not easy to start over, but sometimes we do not have a choice. We are compelled to rise again and not lie in the ashes and die.

Fire is both destructive and transformative; it is an opportunity for revitalisation. But words of empowerment might not comfort people in the moments painful events are unfolding. While the houses burned, words might have done little for the families who were watching. Like the teenaged girl who screamed and cried; asking questions like where her family would live and how she would go to school as fire threatened their home. These are questions no child should be forced to asked. In times of devastation, we may ask ourselves: what lesson is this the painful experience trying to teach us?

As I tried to understand what happened in Pike, Street on Wednesday morning, I also thought about the recent Plaisance fires. In both cases, several families suffered and in one instance an elderly man died. And, naturally, I questioned in both cases if anything could have been done to avoid the magnitude of the devastation. Being an eyewitness to the Kitty fires, I can say that the answer is yes.

The Guyana Fire Service is to be commended for the great work it does, but often it also fails the community. The firefighters arrived at the scene when two houses were already destroyed. Before long, there was no water and the fires were allowed to spread.  The last house that was affected could have been saved had the fire service had access to water in a timelier manner.

For years, we have been calling for improvements in our fire service. For those who lost their homes, saying what the fire service could have done or recommending what could be done to improve their service will not soothe their pain. And while a house can be rebuilt and material possessions can be replaced, many of the victims may take a longer time to recover from the trauma. The memories the families shared in their various homes are all they can cling to.

A member of the fire service shared his belief that it is the responsibility of the fire service to sensitize the public on what the reality is. For example, he revealed, there is an issue with the maintenance of fire hydrants; the municipality believes that it is the Guyana Water Incorporated’s responsibility to maintain them and Guyana Water Incorporated believes it is the municipality’s responsibility. As for fire service appearing when it is too late in many instances, he noted that it is hard sometimes to pinpoint the location of the fires when panicking citizens call to report that their homes are being burned, often because they cannot give clear directions due to their shock and confusion.

There is no question that collectively we must take the necessary steps to try to avoid fires from occurring. We cannot have faulty or illegal wiring and expect to be safe from the possibility of fire. Those who smoke must also be careful not to smoke when they are too tired because the chance of falling asleep and leaving a lit cigarette can cause destruction. Matches must not be left where children can access them. Leaving candles burning has also often caused fires.

Not all fires are accidental, however. There are instances of arson, which seem to most often involve disputed properties. Unfortunately, even in such cases it is not always just the targeted building that is affected. Just like the fires in Kitty, which started with one home and eventually burned four in total.

It is devastating to see hopeless looks on the faces of men, women and children. Many who must now not only rebuild their homes but find peace. How can there be peace when a person has no place to rest their head?

Fires remind us to examine ourselves and they remind us of what is important. Material possessions can be lost in an instant, but it is our lives that are most important. Fires can remind us that we should not wait on things to happen in our lives but make them happen. We must take chances and explore as many possibilities for happiness. We are reminded that when we die, we leave all our material possessions behind and our physical bodies are burned, decays and eventually turns to dust. What’s the point of it all, if we do not stay on a constant path of ascension while we are here?

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