It was very sudden. I was in our field office, just outside Accra, when a nearly indescribable racket began. It was if the most intense rainstorm in history suddenly broke upon us and our tin roof. I knew that it was sunny out--I had just been outside minutes earlier. I rushed to the window and looked out--and it was still bright and sunny. But the sound was localized now, outside and to my right, but out of sight. Heavy black smoke rose into the sky from the opposite side of the block wall that demarked our property boundary.
Outside, there was panic. The dogs and chickens had run to the northern part of our plot, and the grounds staff were in a panic. The flames were more than 10 m high, right up against the other side of the wall. The wind was blowing the fire away from us and across the overgrown neighbouring plot, away to the northeast. Small Kwame told me that Grandpa (our old security guard) had gotten drunk and used far too much petrol in burning the trash--the result was this fire that was now threatening to sweep through our neighbourhood.
Great, I thought. Canadian mining company burns down neighbourhood.
We always had the hose hooked up to the spigot. I turned on the water, but as usual, there was no pressure. Fortunately, we had an elevated water tank, where we stored water as it was normally out. Unfortunately, we only had a few buckets, and in seconds, we had an impromptu bucket brigade snaking its way across the overgrown yard. I tried not to think about snakes. We had spitting cobras, and once a green mamba.
Vegetation in the neighbouring plot. It wasn't quite this green when the
fire happened, as it was the end of the dry season.
Unfortunately, our few buckets were able to accomplish very little against the raging fire. A little more manpower arrived from the neighbours on the opposite side of the property, with a few more buckets, but it was clear that we were losing ground rapidly. The wind had picked up, the fire had advanced about 200 m and was reaching the concrete shell erected on the neighbour's plot, blackening it. At this point I realized that we had better get to the crossroads and take advantage of the firebreak, otherwise the fire could burn through the entire town.
We ran. The flames were well over 10 m--the building was to be three stories and flames were higher than the building. It was the end of the dry season, and there was plenty of fuel in the neighbour's yard. The roads in our neighbourhood were laterite with some gravel. With only a few damp cloths, we crossed the road and chased down wind-borne flaming debris, stamping them out before they could spread. Luckily the yards on the far side of the crossroads were well kept, and there was little there to burn.
After about fifteen minutes, the fire backed up against the road and ran out of fuel.
The surreal moment of the day - I was still chasing down windblown sparks, when a woman emerged from one of the houses on our block. At this point the flames were right against the side of her house, and they were still higher than her house, but the fire was mainly confined to a narrow space between her house and that of her neighbour. She spies me, and begins walking toward me very deliberately. I kept chasing down sparks, and every time I looked up, she made eye contact and kept approaching. I was almost out of breath when she caught up to me. "Here it comes," I thought.
"Nice to see you," she says. "When did you get back? How was Canada?"