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CAMILLA BATH: A (real) burning issue

Fire is a terrifying thing. It tears through homes, guts buildings, destroys property and devastates the lives of those who survive it. Many don't.

Years ago, as a field reporter, I covered the story of a fire at an electrical sub-station in Johannesburg in which a man died. Authorities suspected the victim had been living in the sub-station and had inadvertently touched a live wire, starting the blaze late at night. Early the following morning, I caught a glimpse of his blackened body through the painted slats of an air vent. It is an image that has stayed with me in vivid detail, one I wish I'd never seen: the badly burnt corpse somehow frozen in time, crouching, one hand outstretched, his face formless, its features seared away. Perhaps worse than that stiff figure was the smell of burnt flesh, unexpectedly sweet and cloying.

Every time I hear or read about another fatal fire, I'm taken straight back to that scene. Recently, that's once again been happening disturbingly often. A series of fires in people's homes - their houses, shacks or shelters - has by my count claimed at least 15 lives in Gauteng and the North West alone since the beginning of June. Twelve of them were children; some were as young as two years old. Each of these victims died an undoubtedly horrible death, just like the man whose body I saw must have done. Yet we risk giving each of these personal tragedies the same, almost dehumanizing treatment. The term "charred body" is used in the media on a regular basis, as is the description "burnt beyond recognition". I'm quite sure I used one or both of them in the reports I did from that sub-station. The phrases are somehow safe, unemotional, devoid of the horror that must surely have come before. They insulate us as journalists and consumers of news from the reality of what we're dealing with on an almost daily basis in the winter months.

To add to this feeling of familiarity, of strange routine, municipal and emergency officials issue the same warnings year after year: "Don't leave heaters or open flames unattended", "Don't throw your cigarette butts out of your car window", or "Don't set small fires that might develop into a bigger problem". There seem to be a lot of don'ts around fire safety, but what about the dos?

For instance, "Do talk to your children about the dangers of fire and how to protect themselves". I'm not a mother, so I can't imagine the pain of the Pretoria woman who lost her two young children in a house fire in Montana last week, but it was harrowing to cover as a news story. She had tried and failed to rescue them from the flames and had then, one can only assume in desperation and panic, apparently told them to hide in a cupboard. A wooden cupboard. During a fire?

As I said, I'm not a mother. But if I were, having heard this story, I hope I would sit down with my children and have a very real discussion about fire safety. Would things have been any different for the Montana family had they identified an escape route for the children in case of a fire in their home? Or if they had spoken about what to do if you find yourself caught in a blaze? Possibly not. These children were very young. But somehow, surely, this story could have, should have, had a better ending.

Here's another do: "Do think about the risk of fire. Every day." Each winter, it seems, tragedy focuses our thoughts on an issue that should be top of mind all the time. It's been just over a year since the fire at the Struisbult care centre in Ekhuruleni on 13 June 2011, in which 12 people died. In August 2010, 18 people were killed at the Pieter Wessels home for the aged in Nigel, also on the East Rand. There were flurries of attention, recrimination and promises of improvements in the wake of both. And yet here we sit, in the winter of 2012, with at least six families already destroyed by fire.

In some way, I've been involved in the coverage of each of the stories I've mentioned in this piece. You'd think that I'd follow my own advice. Yet a few days ago, I left an old wall heater on all night with a dog blanket lying right up against it, in a house with dry-as-tinder knotted pine ceilings and electrics I know were badly laid decades ago. The next morning, I sat next to the cooling heater sick to my stomach, thinking of the man in the sub-station and what could have happened to me, to my family. Even with the understanding I've gained as a journalist over the years about how easily fires start and how quickly they can spread and what damage they can do, I had made one of the most basic mistakes. Will I be as lucky next time? Will you?

Camilla Bath is the Deputy News Editor for Eyewitness News, in Johannesburg.

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