I wish I had had time to grab my camera and take some photos. I had never experienced anything like this before… Fire. In the mountains. At 10pm. 100m away from Tutdao and 50m away from Ot, one of ‘my’ elephants. Approaching quickly, burning everything.
If we didn’t manage to stop the fire, our elephants would burn. Our houses would be next.
Joy, Tutdao’s Mahout, turned 33 a couple of days ago. We had a big BBQ that night, with all sorts of food (e.g. Morrocon style pork, spicy noodle salad, fried vegetables) and beer & whiskey, of course. Everybody was having a good time when, suddenly, we got a call… FIRE! A farmer told us that it was dangerously close to one of our elephants; part of our land was already on fire and we had to make a move at once.
We immediately rushed to our pick-up truck, grabbing brooms and rakes as well as water bottles. Within 10 minutes, we reached the fire. Chaos broke out at once (perhaps because 60% of the people were already drunk). What needed to be done and who would be doing it? Where should we start? Then, everybody began to panic: Ot was chained to a tree, just 50m away from the fire. We had to move her immediately or she would burn – but we also needed to be extremely careful when approaching her, as she was obviously scared and thus dangerous to be around (elephants are wild animals after all…). Two Mahouts began to work on this problem and managed to ride her back to the camp where she would spend the rest of the night. The rest of us drove closer to the fire.
I never imagined that I would try to put out a forest fire one day. Especially with a broom.
Ten of us formed a line and began sweeping dirt into the fire and grass away from it. We tried to clear a 1m wide gap between the flames and dried grass that had not yet caught fire. Sweat was running down our bodies while we were silently working side by side. The most difficult task was to avoid spreading the fire. Sometimes, grass that had caught fire on one end would get stuck in my broom and set other grass on fire as I was sweeping it away.
It soon became clear that we would not be able to stop the fire by ourselves. It was too big. We needed a lot of water. We needed a fire truck.
Luckily, one of the camp’s employees has a friend who owns a fire truck. As we were waiting for his arrival, we became more and more anxious. But when the truck finally appeared, our anxiety grew even bigger: the truck barely made it up the dirt road into the mountains. In addition, the firemen had been drinking just like us and seemed incapable of extinguishing the fire. In fact, they had much trouble with aiming the hose at the fire. They sprayed water on to almost everything, except for the flames… But eventually (and after a lot of shouting), they managed to get it right and we were able to catch our breath.
I then went to check on Tutdao with one of the Mahouts and found her standing with eyes wide open as far away from the fire as possible. She was obviously very frightened. I felt bad for her when I made my way back and left her standing alone in the dark. I had asked if we could move her further down to the camp but there was nowhere to put her down there…
Once the fire was under control and only a few tree stumps were left burning, everyone went back to the camp and the ‘party’ continued. It was more of a ‘I can’t believe this just happened’ atmosphere, however. I only stayed for a short while and soon went to bed completely exhausted, worrying about Tutdao throughout the night.
So, the end of cold season is here – dry season is just about to start. Over the next three months, fires will regularly threaten the elephant camp. I guess this was only the beginning of my firefighting career…