Fire disaster makes more than 1,000 homeless in Freetown

A fierce fire in Susan’s Bay, Freetown, highlights the insecurity and lack of access to basic services faced by residents of Sierra Leone’s informal settlements.

Joseph M Macarthy's picture Mary S Kamara's picture
Joseph M Macarthy is executive director of SLURC, and Mary S Kamara is a junior researcher at SLURC
29 March 2021
People observe burnt down structures

Burnt down structures in areas affected by the fire outbreak in Susan’s Bay (Photo: copyright SLURC)

Susan’s Bay, a seaside slum community in Freetown, has once again experienced an inferno. It started on the evening of Wednesday, 24 March and this time, the event was as terrible as it was abrupt. No one saw it coming despite March now being the month when fires regularly occur.

Despite a swift response from the National Fire Force, the lack of access roads prevented fire engines from reaching the community to quench the blaze, allowing it to burn for more than seven hours.

Home to almost 4,500 people, Susan’s Bay is one of Freetown’s largest and poorest informal settlements. Unable to access formal housing, people are forced to live in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions along the coast, with little access to roads, healthcare, schools, water and sanitation.

In the close-knit houses, the risk of fire breaking out is always high. Overcrowding, exclusion from city planning and spatial disparity create problems for emergency service provision and access. So, when disaster strikes, loss of life, injury and damage to properties and livelihoods is invariably high.

The recent fire caused multiple injuries and massive destruction of livelihoods, houses and properties, displacing hundreds of people.

Although the National Disaster Management Agency could not give a clear estimate of the extent of the damage, residents reported that the fire may have destroyed over 200 houses and made more than 1,000 residents homeless.

Local NGO Centre of Dialogue on Human Settlement and Poverty Alleviation (CODOHSAPA) estimated that 189 structures were lost, directly affecting more than 7,000 people from 1,597 households.

Disaster risks in informal settlements are high

Although the cause of the fire remains unknown, poor electrical installations or the extensive use of fire for outdoor cooking are most likely at fault.

Residents explained that, as most households cannot afford electricity, illegal connections to the national power grid are widespread. And when they tap into the grid, few can pay for proper electric cables, let alone the services of qualified electricians.

Interviews revealed that fire outbreaks are now considered seasonal events in Susan’s Bay, mainly at the peak of the dry season when the heavy, dry winds cause friction in the poorly connected overhanging power cables, creating sparks.

Most think this probably caused last week’s fire, and many eyewitnesses explained that the blaze was strongest around poorly constructed and clustered houses, where illegal electricity connections dominate. Unplanned development is a major feature of informal settlements in Freetown where communities spring up and expand without considering disaster risks.

Livelihoods, homes and belongings lost

Eyewitnesses claim that the inferno started in Guinea Wharf, a landing point where petty traders from Guinea and northern Sierra Leone bring their wares for sale. As Susan Bay’s main economic hub, Guinea Wharf is home to many informal businesses.

Initial reports say that businesspeople were most affected, with many losing their entire business capital or assets. Youths and schoolchildren also lost their study materials in the fire, and are missing out on school or college.  

No deaths have been reported so far, although several young boys who ventured in to recover belongings and rescue relatives and friends were reportedly injured by hot nails and iron sheets. Others were injured from picking up scrap metal from the burnt wreckage.

Map showing the area size of Susan’s Bay affected by the fire outbreak. The affected area is outlined in red (Photo: copyright CODOHSAPA)

Immediate response

The Sierra Leone Red Cross Society offered first aid treatment, while some who sustained burns while trying to escape were rushed to the nearest public hospital. Community youth volunteers — known as the ‘area boys’ — also played a significant role in rescuing people from the fire. 

The immediate community response was impressive, with influential people in nearby areas opening their homes and unfinished structures as temporary camps. Others provided tents and tarpaulins for temporary dwellings. The nearby police station offered part of their storeroom to safeguard possessions.

The day after the fire, the displaced were at the mercy of the Freetown City Council and central government. We spotted a few NGOs at the scene, but they were focused on helping the injured and other vulnerable groups.

But for many people who have lost their personal belongings, their books and equipment, and their capital or assets, help remains elusive. This is particularly so for those who took loans for start-up capital.  

Isata, a first-year university student, said: “I feel loads of pain in my heart as I speak to you about this traumatic experience. This is a complete setback to my whole life because I just started my university education a few weeks ago. I have not even paid my fees and the only source of income I had was the few businesses that I do, but I’ve lost everything; the business and my entire savings have all burnt to ashes.

“Now I am reduced to zero. I have nowhere else to get money for my fees, no money to buy dress for lectures and no house to stay.”

Note: This blog was updated on 30 March to reflect new information that showed an increase in the number of people and households affected by the fire. The initial estimate of 1,400 people and 350 households was updated to 7,093 people from 1,597 households.

The authors are grateful for the contributions of Francis Reffell, of the Centre of Dialogue on Human Settlement and Poverty Alleviation (CODOHSAPA), and SLURC’s Ibrahim B Bangura to this blog.