The Tansen Volunteer Fire Brigade

Nepal seems to be a bit deficient in “emergency” services. When a power line is down, it will often sit on the sidewalk for a week or two before someone gets to it. Police are rarely seen on the streets. Hospitals do not have ambulances or ambulance drivers. There is no fire department. There is no such thing as “911”.

This isn’t because there are no emergencies here.  We’ve seen plenty of traffic accidents, I’ve had my wallet stolen, and there are horrific stories of poorly maintained cooking gas tanks blow up.  In the United States, the police would called, streets would be blocked off, official investigations would be performed, and there would be lots of lights and sirens.   As westerners it is our first response, to call someone who can do something about it. 

We had a ‘who do we call’ moment the other night as we walked home and saw the hillside above our house on fire.  The sky was orange, and we could make out 15 foot flames lapping at the trees. The fire was a good 100 vertical meters above our house, and perhaps a quarter mile away, but this was enough to put us a little on edge.  What if the wind picked up? Were we even safe to go home? Has someone called 911 yet? Who’s job is this?


Our first site of the fire above our house. It is burning outward as it consumes the dead grass.

I did the thing that most foreigners would do in this situation. I grabbed my camera. I figured this would help two fold; I could keep an eye on things to see if we did indeed need to leave our house, and I could also document the evidence.  You know, just in case there was an official investigation afterwards.


Closer up to the fire I was impressed, but not by the magnitude of the blaze. There were no lights or sirens, no ladder trucks showed up, but what did show up was the Tansen community. There were 40 or more people walking bravely into the flames to tackle the blaze.  They were the ‘first responders’ and they came with shovels, blankets, branches and shoes to beat out the fire.  Within a period of 30 minutes the raging inferno was nothing but scattered glowing embers.


Here you can see some of the “volunteers” battling the blaze.

What would have happened if this were in a field near my home in Rochester, NY?  Would I have started beating out flames with my shoe if my neighbors house was on fire?  Most likely not.  I’ve found that in America we sometimes have a “that’s not my problem” attitude. If we see someone hurt, we call an ambulance. If there is a fire, we call the fire department. I’m pretty sure no one would try to put out a similar fire at home, but they would probably call 911 and they just may grab their cameras.  People would think it exceptional, or more likely crazy, if we tried to put the flames out ourselves. And of course it isn’t safe to go charing into a blaze and in America we aren’t trained in fire safety and emergency response.  But then again, people in Nepal aren’t either.

The whole thing brought back one of those memories that you try to forget of when we were in a roll over car accident.  We were returning from somewhere on a long, boring, rainy stretch of road.  It had been raining for our entire trip and there was standing water on the road.  We hit a puddle on the expressway going 55 miles an hour, slid into the cement barrier of the median and the car rolled several times.  There were only 3 of us at the time and only by God’s protection, none of us were injured.  I know people saw it happen, it was pretty hard to miss, and I’m sure someone called 911, but when the rolling stopped and we looked through the broken windows, all of the cars that were around us simply drove by.  I remember seeing some shocked faces as they rubber necked at us out the windows, but nobody stopped.  It wasn’t their job.  The first people to actually talk to us were the first responders who arrived 15 minutes later, because it was their job.

I watched my Nepali neighbors put out the fire and was in awe of seeing the living organism of community.  The response was almost instinctual, there was a fire that was threatening their town, so the town had to put it out.  I’m sure not everyone who’s house was threatened was there, but I’m also sure that not everyone was there because their particular house was threatened.  But the next time it actually could be there house, so they all had equal stakes and responsibility to keep the town from burning down.  It was their job.

I’m not sure why it isn’t this way in America.  Maybe because we have home insurance and  so even a loss is someone else’s problem.  Maybe because we are overly concerned with safety?  Maybe we just can’t see how someone else’s problem is our problem too?  Maybe it is because we are too busy to do something that isn’t our job?


Only a few glowing embers remain under the flashlights of the “volunteers” and the starry skies.

I really don’t have any answers to these questions and I know it is squishy ground weighing cultural differences and distinctions against each other.  What I do know is that the fire was put out quickly and effectively that night. I know my house is still standing. I know I will feel safer if another fire breaks out (which apparently they do every year). And I know when that next fire does come, instead of grabbing my camera, I’ll grab a shovel.