Readers' Submissions

Burn Baby Burn!



Okay, I admit it. I’m as bad as anyone. I’m as willing to stand around and gawk at a conflagration as anyone else. As a small boy, I remember standing gazing in disbelief (from a safe distance) while an entire lumber yard burned to the ground. It was horrible, but I enjoyed every last minute, as only a ten year old can. Fire is one of the most fascinating phenomenons in nature. It is ethereal. It hardly seems real as it dances and changes its shape, but just a “gentle caress” is enough to let you know that fire is as deadly as it is seductive. I suppose indifferent is a better description since it is silly to ascribe malice to anything in nature. In the natural world we live in, “stuff just happens”. Nature is neither out to befriend us or out to “get us.” Luckily for Homo Sapiens, fire turns out to be handy for all kinds of useful things, from barbecuing a Mastodon, to making a metal spear point to bring that Mastodon to the table.

Did you know that the prehistoric people who eventually would become the Thais were one on the first groups to smelt bronze? It’s true. At the Ban Chiang archaeological site, near Udon Thani, bronze implements have been found that date back to 3400 B.C.

Fast forward to the first decade of the 21st Century. Not surprisingly, the Thais are still busily playing with fire. I don’t think its overstating things to say that many Thais will happily burn just about anything, any time, anywhere. Last week while riding to school I came across a large bonfire. An enormous pile of leaves was blazing away in an area surrounded by large amounts of dead branches, dry grass, and all kinds of combustible material. The fire was being whipped up by intermittent gusts of wind. There was a potential for this fire to not only spread, but turn into a major conflagration. Back in Farangland, someone would most likely be watching over a fire of this size…hopefully with a ready hose in hand. This, being Thailand, no one was watching over anything. Welcome once again to The Land of Smiles, which also should be known as The Land of Unattended Fires.

I’m writing this during the last week of November. The cool season has just arrived. (Thank the deity of your choice…or no one at all!) The air is crisp and fresh smelling, at least far away from any diesel exhaust. The sky is actually clear, with not even a trace of haziness. Do you believe in telepathy? I don’t, but for just a moment I’m almost tempted to reconsider the existence of psychic powers. How else to explain what’s happening in every province all over Thailand. Somchai, Somporn, and all of their thousands of brothers, sister, fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles and cousins are all simultaneously experiencing an overwhelming urge to go out and burn something. You can just imagine them all saying to themselves, “Clear, blue sky eh? Well we’ll just see about that! Give me an hour and I’ll have the smokiest, smudgiest column of smoke blotting out the sun that ever choked you in your tracks!” That’s one promise you really can take to the bank. As quick as you can say Air Quality Alert, there are hundreds of fires, large and small, going in every yard and field across the countryside. Once said fire has been lit, and crackling away merrily, it's time to walk away and leave it to fate. Whatever burns, burns. It’s a windy day in the middle of the dry season you say? Well, what of it? I feel like burning something, so I’ll go ahead and do it anyway!

Last year for a short time, Lampang province had the worst air quality in Thailand. This is surprising, considering this is not a large urban area and there is no heavy industry. I think a temperature inversion was involved in keeping pollutants trapped. In any case, the air was not only hazy, but acrid and chock full of particulate matter. Hell, my school actually handed out face masks to everyone. You might think that the municipality would issue a no-burn order. I mean, did anyone need to make the situation worse? Naturally, no such directive was issued. It seemed in fact that more people than ever were burning piles of whatever was at hand. Go figure!

I am no agricultural expert. Perhaps someone out there who is will enlighten me on this point. Does burning the rice and sugarcane fields have any beneficial effect? Does carbonizing everything provide more nutrients to the soil than simply allowing everything to decay over time? Enquiring minds want to know! What about burning all the median strips and verges along every highway? What’s that all about? Okay, even if burning organic material may possibly have some benefit, I defy anyone to tell me the value of throwing plastic bottles, bags and snack wrappers into a fire. After so many years living here I’ve learned not to expect an answer, other than, “Because we can!”

As small children, most of us were probably told…on numerous occasions, NOT to play with fire! Woe be to you little Johnny if you were caught playing with matches, or horror of horrors, setting something on fire! Children playing with fire, or anything dangerous, are one of the few times I feel a smack to the buttocks is not only justified, but actually called for. My ex-wife worked for a time at a hospital burn unit sponsored by the Shriners. (To anyone not from the U.S., the Shriners are a fraternal order) Children are treated there free of charge. Sometimes she would come home in tears, having worked some horribly burned children. I think all of us have a made a few minor burns in our lives, so you know how painful even a small first degree burn can be. Now imagine you are a small child with large parts of your body covered in second and third degree burns. For me, this is yet one more proof of the non-existence of any God.

Many of these children received their horrible injuries by playing with fire. Children, unless they are living in a war zone, generally can’t conceive that anything they do might result in getting hurt, let alone killed. One of the roles of a parent is not only to explain things that are dangerous…over and over again, but be vigilant they their children aren’t doing precisely what you warned them not to do! Seems like a no-brainer right? Don’t allow children to play with fire. Well my friends, even as you read these words, plenty of children here, especially in rural areas are doing just that… with the full knowledge of their families.

Yes, I know that there may be a very good reason for folks to have a fire. They may be cooking, either using charcoal or propane. They may be burning things that really do need to be burned. In any case, these are jobs for adults. In large families, responsible, or so I would hope, older children may have to do some of the cooking. My wife had to do so as a young girl. I would hope that their families have taught them things like, not letting water get into the pan of hot oil being used for deep frying! I would also hope that there is some degree of supervision going on. Of course hopes and wishes here in Thailand often mean little or nothing!

As for children simply playing with fire…well let old Sawadee tell you a little story. About nine years ago my wife and I were visiting her family down in Buriram. While walking through a vacant lot next to their home, I came across a bunch of children having a grand old time playing with a fire, a large one I should add. These kids ranged from around ten years old, right down to toddlers. What would you do in such a situation? Me, as a Farang, with a full set of “western prejudices”, immediately rushed over and chased everyone away. I then proceeded to find some water and extinguish the fire. Was Sawadee congratulated by these kids’ parents for having the common sense to prevent a possible tragedy? If you think that, then I’ve got a “secret treasure map” to find some pirate gold just for you! These children’s parents not only didn’t admonish them for playing with a fire, but groused at me for spoiling their fun! Note: one of these children later stuck his hand in a pot of boiling water that no one was watching and severely burned himself.

Our little Sam hasn’t burned himself…yet, and I cringe knowing that he will someday. It’s not my intention to give him nightmares, but until he is old enough to keep himself safe, I do my best to let him know in no uncertain terms that he would not enjoy a burn! It goes without saying that I keep him far away from anything that could hurt him, including sharp knives, fans, and anything electrical.

Are you still awake out there? I hope so, because all of this has been leading up to the story of how Sawadee got to play fireman with the Lampang Fire Department!

Yesterday one of my Thai teachers in my office informed me that Anuban (Kindergarten) would be having a fire drill at 1:00 in the afternoon. She told me what my responsibilities would be, as far as helping with the simulated evacuation. Having been through a fire drill or two back in America, I thought I knew how it would go. A bell would ring. The children, led by their teachers would walk out of their classrooms, exit their buildings and gather in a designated area. This would be a necessarily, but hardly exciting exercise. Boy was I mistaken. When the Thais decide to have an event, they often pull out all of the stops!

At precisely 1:00, a siren went off that could have awoken the dead. Yikes! There was no mistaking that something important was going on. I stood their in amazement as a virtual torrent of teaches and children poured out of their classrooms, down a flight of stairs and away from their buildings. You wouldn’t think that children could move so quickly in an orderly fashion. To help simulate a real fire, someone from the fire department used a portable smoke machine. The effect was quite impressive. The “show” was only just beginning though. Two children, playing the part of fire victims were carried out in stretchers, and given first aid in the gymnasium, which was the designated meeting point. These two kids, who were enjoying every minute of it, were swaddled in bandages. What’s that I hear? Sirens? Here comes a fire truck, followed by half a dozen emergency vehicles. Out come a host fully suited fire fighters and paramedics. The children cheered, and so did I! The simulated fire was successfully extinguished! Chai yo! Chai yo! Chai yo! Pretty exciting for a bunch of 4- to 6-year olds. Hey, I may be an adult, but this sort of thing excites me as well. It was about to get more exciting.

Everyone went outside to hear a lecture about fire safety from the head of the fire brigade, and to see a few demonstrations. One of the firemen brought out a propane tank and hose. In Thailand, many fires are caused by propane. The fireman turned on the gas and lit it. Out came an enormous gout of flame. He demonstrated the technique for quickly turning off the gas valve. I should have known it was coming, but I was quickly “volunteered” to try to do it. Oh, the things I do for my students! The tank once more produces a jet of flame at least three meters long. In stepped Sawadee to shut it off. The children cheer! I take a bow. Oh, but apparently my part of the demonstration isn’t done yet. The fireman brings out two fire extinguishers. One is the dry chemical type; the other is a CO2 type. He shows me how to use each one. He next dumps a bucket of water in the middle of the parking lot. He then dumps a small amount of highly flammable liquid and lights it. Well that tiny fire should be a cinch to put out. Ha! This guy then proceeds to dump a bucket of this flammable stuff onto that tiny flame. Whoomp! The doors to Hell swing open as a geyser of flames shoot for the sky! It’s suddenly hotter than you can imagine. After getting a nod to go ahead, I walk forward with the chemical extinguisher and let loose a huge cloud of white powder. The fire immediately goes out! Again the children cheer. Wow! What a rush! Now that was fun! But wait…I get to do it again, this time using the CO2. I have to admit that I was just a tad nervous the first time. I now have a little more confidence as I but the second fire out. Who knew that simply showing up to work could be this much fun? I have always has tremendous respect for firemen. Back home I had a number of friends who were firemen. That is one profession we should all take our hats off to.

In typical Thai fashion, after the demonstration, refreshments were served to the firemen and EMTs. Gifts were presented and group photographs taken. All in all it was quite a successful afternoon. Hopefully the children took away a few valuable lessons.

Surprisingly, in all the years I have lived here, I have never seen a fire truck on its way to a fire. Back home in the U.S. it was a common sight. I hope that means there aren’t that many house fires here. Every time I’m in Bangkok, stuck in a traffic jam, I wonder how in the world a fire truck could possibly make it to a fire. In the meantime I hope that schoolchildren are receiving some kind of fire prevention instruction. Do the Thais have the equivalent of Smokey the Bear or Sparky the Fire Dog? This being Thailand, probably have a Fire Elephant.

Stickman's thoughts:

That's a good point you make about fire engines and fire trucks in Bangkok. I see them often and yeah, the traffivc is a might problem!