It’s been a hot, hot day here in Tarapoto. Two blocks down from the main square, things just got a lot hotter…


Black smoke billowing up from a city center is never a good sign. I watched as it grew, wondering what exactly was going on. I turned on the TV to channel 24, where a live audio broadcast was describing the scene on the second floor of the Ferretería Huallaga hardware store.

It sounded like complete chaos; the fire brigade had arrived, but they had no water. Interested to see how the local authorities would cope with the situation, I picked up my camera and took a brisk stroll down to the scene of the incident.

I’m normally quite flippant about minor problems such as holes in public roads, but this was a more pressing emergency. Arriving at the fire, I wasn’t surprised to see an almost complete lack of order or efficiency — a stark contrast with what I’d expect to see in a similar situation back in the UK.

As flames whipped around inside the second floor, a few things really stood out:

  • As noted, the lone fire truck had no water, at least to begin with. There was no fire hydrant or other water source to connect to (or if there was, it was out of water). During the hour before more hoses and, presumably, a water truck arrived, men on the roofs of neighboring buildings probably threw more water on the fire — using buckets — than the fire brigade managed with their single hose.
  • Despite a heavy police presence, the gathered crowd of onlookers was allowed to stand just across the street from the burning building. This created some potentially drastic situations. Firstly, it was more than evident that the building could collapse. When half the tin roof did collapse down into the street, the closest bystanders suddenly surged back from the falling debris. And what about the possibility of secondary explosions? Maybe it only happens in the movies, but I was kind of thinking, “What if there are five gas canisters up there? Don’t those things shoot through the air when they explode?” (they probably don’t, but…).
  • The crowd also blocked in the fire truck, which couldn’t move before or after the roof came down. That, frankly, is unbelievably poor management of the entire scene.
  • Another oddity was the reaction of sections of the crowd. As far as I know, there were no fatalities or injuries. Even so, the “entertainment” factor was strange, with groups of lads cheering and clapping as things collapsed. That was a man’s business and, quite possibly, home going up in flames. Didn’t seem like the kind of thing to applaud…

I’ve just got back from the scene, so I still don’t know what caused the fire. The blaze looked like it was under control when I left and there’s no more black smoke spewing over Tarapoto.

My main reaction, as of right now, is “Blimey, if I ever set fire to my home, I hope I do it in the UK…”


Photos © Tony Dunnell