Why Nairobi slums fires are not about to end

Traders and well-wishers, help salvage properties left, after fire razed down Grogon market in Nairobi, in an early Sunday morning incident on June 04 2017.The cause of fire not immediately known. PHOTO by DAVID NJAAGA/STANDARD}

More than 300 families were left homeless in separate fires the city in the past week. The first incident happened in Riruta, where one man trying to contain the fire was injured. Police say up to 243 structures were razed in the blaze that took a long time to put out.

Last week, two children died in the area.

In Shauri Moyo, another fire razed 20 houses, rendering many homeless. Police say they are yet to establish the cause. Another fire in the same area left two children dead and more than 10 structures destroyed.

This came just one day after fire brought down many structures in separate fires in Kibera and Mukuru Kayaba slums, rendering hundreds homeless.

Most of these fires occur at odd hours - either when the majority of residents are away or when they are at home, asleep.

It is difficult to know exactly what causes these fires because the occupants give false information for fear of accounting for damage caused to neighbouring properties.

Rendered homeless

Two months ago, 2,500 families were rendered homeless when fire razed down Kuwinda slums in Karen.

In less than one month, The Standard has reported more than 60 fires that resulted in the death of more than 10 people and left more than 600 displaced in the slums.

Fires in Nairobi's informal settlements are increasingly becoming a feature of urban crisis, with several instances hitting the media this year.

The National Disaster Operations Centre says Nairobi has seen an increase in the rate of fires, adding that drought, as well as dry and windy conditions have exacerbated the frequency of fires in urban settings.

In addition, lack of, or limited, water makes it difficult to put them out.

Even with the rampant fires resulting in loss of life and property, injuries, displacement and trauma, relevant authorities and the residents have continued to shift blame.

While the residents blame the county government for exposing them to fire hazards and slow response, the latter blames the residents for negligence and laxity in taking preventive measures against fires.

County Director of County Fire and Rescue Services Brian Kisali revealed that electrical faults, cooking equipment, cigarettes, domestic violence, children playing and improvised lanterns have been majorly cited as the main causes of fire outbreaks.

"Illegal tapping of electricity and loose connections, and use of adulterated fuel in their paraffin stoves are the leading causes of infernos in the slums," he said.

According to research conducted by International Journal of Social Science and Humanities, fire hazards in Nairobi slums are mainly as a result of residents' vulnerability that catalysed their unconventional methods like illegal electricity connection and improvised lighting (such as the lantern commonly known as 'koroboi'), which predisposed them to fire disasters.

The study done last December inferred that the livelihood levels and options of most slum dwellers made them more susceptible and vulnerable to many forms of disasters, including fire.

"The majority of us are poor. We cannot afford to have our own meters from Kenya Power due to the associated high costs. We are forced to use 'sambaza' (shared) electricity for lighting but some houses have been found to use it even for cooking, thus overloading the power lines and leading to bursting or melting, and in turn resulting in fires," says a resident in Kibera.

In addition, residents who earn low incomes resort to cheap labour for electric connections, which are done poorly and further expose the community to the risk of fire.

Leading cause

Kenya Power officials confirmed that electricity was indeed a leading cause of fire outbreaks in informal settlements, yet the residents cover up in cases where there are illegal connections.

The journal notes that in some cases, Kenya Power staff had no access as the occupants were hostile. This means the company cannot access the slums for electricity regulation, further increasing the risk of fire.