“Are they saying fire, or are these just drunks saying goodnight after the late-night soccer game,” I wondered in a sleepy 3am haze.
“One of the bungalows is on fire,” a panicked female voice shouted. There was no doubt now that she was right outside my wall.
“We need a fire extinguisher,” she said as the guesthouse owner was franticly searching her dark and powerless room for a cell phone. What they needed was the fire brigade. What they got was us.
. . .
A few hundred feet away, red smoke and sparks billowed into the night sky. Apparently, an electrical fire had set the third-to-last bamboo bungalow ablaze and it was going up like a pile of kindling.
What do we do?!?!
Together we ran, Carrie, the owner, and me, slipping in mud along the way, until we reached the burning bungalow and stood there with little idea what to do.
The far-right bungalow’s resident, Christian, was busy trying to figure out how to use a Thai fire extinguisher.
A handful of other guests stood around equally as befuddled.
Off to the side, a tenth guest was busy taking photographs, which inspired Carrie to say “I can’t believe you didn’t bring your camera.”
In all the chaos, I actually had forgotten/chosen not to. But she was right; I couldn’t not document the night.
So I ran to our hut, grabbed my camera, and sprinted back to the fire.
“OUCH,” I yelled, as my entire left leg fell through the soaked bamboo bridge that separated the dirt road from the final three bungalows and the fire.
Forming a Bucket Brigade
The Henry Ford Approach to Fire Fighting
Pulling my leg out of the bridge, I saw that the fire had now jumped to the roof of the second to last bungalow and was spreading fast.
Meanwhile, in an effort to save the third and final hut, the others had formed an assembly line from the river and were busy passing buckets up. The goal was to get it wet enough that the fire wouldn’t catch.
I snapped a few more photographs before putting down my camera and joining the front line of the bucket brigade.
… Woosh! Repeat…
Our efforts seemed to be doing nothing.
Flames shot up above the trees and outwards towards us.
Smoke billowed in every direction and the middle bungalow was officially a full-on inferno.
Then, just as the heat was getting too intense to endure, I saw it and lost all hope.
“There’s no saving the last bungalow,” I shouted. “The roof is on fire and it’s too hot. Get out of here while you still can!”
At this point, the safety of our volunteer backpacker fire department was seriously in question and everyone had begun to realize it.
A few more buckets were passed, but we quickly dispersed and ran back over – and under – the bamboo bridge.
Madlove, a resident of the fire-starting bungalow, fell through the same hole I did.
Running INTO the Fire
As the others were running away, Christian stood still in disbelief, muttering that his stuff was still inside the final bungalow.
Always the hero, Carrie said “if you want to save it we have to go NOW! Or it’s gone.”
Standing by while my wife ran into a burning building was not an option, so I followed them in with only a headlamp to light the room.
Inside, we were met with disarray and a floor full of Christian’s belongings strewn every-which way.
“It’s just not worth it. We gotta get out of here,” Carrie and I shouted through the growing heat, smoke and roar of the fire.
Christian and Carrie ran out with as much as they could grab. In the chaos, I don’t think I managed to pick up a single thing.
Christian, on the other hand, actually ran back inside to grab his favorite jacket. Sometimes it’s just not worth it.
Resume Bucket Brigade
As the ten of us stood there watching the trio of bungalows crackle, burn and collapse, our attentions quickly turned to ensuring that the blaze stopped there.
Somehow, the fire had not spread to the left of the initial bamboo bungalow, but it was still red hot and dangerously close to the hut next door.
Back to work.
Success at last
At first it was only Pong – the male guesthouse owner – standing in the river filling up buckets. This proved inefficient, so he was soon joined by his wife.
Carrie and a few others stood – in flip flops – on the steep and muddy hill, passing water up to us “runners.” Back and forth we went, dumping bucket after bucket of water on the flames, embers, trees and nearby roofs and walls.
Finally, after a few more minutes, there was more smoke than fire and we called it quits: confident that at least the fire would not spread.
What is a photographer’s moral responsibility?
As I mentioned, my first instinct was to leave the camera behind so I could focus on helping.
Then, when I realized just how many helpers there were – including one guy doing nothing but taking photos – I figured it was ok to grab my camera.
This led to a very tough interaction with the lens. I would snap a few shots, then put down the camera to toss water.
Pick it up again, and then drop it to run into a burning building. Snap snap, then douse.
I didn’t allow myself to fully document the whole experience, as I was busy actually experiencing it.
Kudos to war photographers
I’m really not sure how war photographers do it.
When Carrie and I were in Bangkok during the Red Shirt protests a few years ago, it was an easy choice. No one was in harms way and I had zero reason to not document the acts of rebellion, burning buses and Molotov cocktails.
But this time, my direct actions – or inactions – could be the difference between life or death. Maybe that’s a bit dramatic, considering the actual circumstances, but it sure got me thinking…
A Few Random Thoughts
Looking back on the experience, it seems like hours went by in between waking up to cries of fire and finally walking back to our bungalow to try and get some shaky sleep.
In reality, the whole incident took at most 45 minutes.
We’re pretty sure that Pong’s wife called the fire brigade: they just didn’t ever show up.
The Long Night Ends
Unable to sleep after the fire, Carrie and I treated ourselves to a nice sunrise view over the Pai mountains.
On the walk back, we wound up having a wonderful philosophical conversation with our new friend Madlove.
By the time I returned to the site a mere three hours later, the whole area was almost smoke-free. Three hours after that, it was just ash.
While the last two bungalows were reduced to gray ash, the one that we doused in water at the end of the night was mostly black, as we had put it out before the bamboo could burn fully.
. . .
According to Madlove, the fire started when the electric water heater (photo on the right) in their shower shorted out and was immediately covered in pulsing green flames. Moments later, the bamboo wall behind was ablaze…
Our bucket brigade was an international team, made up of backpackers from Australia, Israel, France, Thailand and America.
As crazy stories from my travels go, I would put this right up there in the top handful.