Fire wrecks canoe center

The blaze that reduced the WAM offices and workshops to rubble started in the early morning hours Sunday February 27. Photo: Chewy Lin.

GIFF JOHNSON

Fires have long been the scourge of Majuro and Sunday’s blaze that destroyed the Waan Aelon in Majel (Canoes of the Marshall Islands) two-story offices and workshops proved that point.
Firefighting equipment and know-how is rarely able to stop a fire in progress. The best that can be hoped for in Majuro is that neighboring buildings can be saved.

This is exactly how the fire in the early morning hours Sunday at WAM’s Delap site played out. The blaze affecting the wooden building got going for as yet undetermined reasons and was quickly out of control. The MIPD fire department arrived and went into action but were quickly out of water. A bucket brigade and an ineffective saltwater pump were also employed.
Fortunately, the adjacent Public School System headquarters buildings did not catch fire, and experienced only modest fire damage. WAM’s A-frame canoe house was also spared, as were a handful of large outrigger canoes by the canoe house.

But the office and workshops were the hub of the WAM program. In these spaces master canoe builders worked with outer island carpenters and boat builders to craft custom designed canoes, proas and catamarans. Hundreds of youthful trainees have spent months developing their carpentry skills, as well as learning English, math and many lifeskills.

The fire department receive help from local residents for controlling the fire at the WAM workshops and offices last Sunday. Here, Hirobo Obeketang and Chris deBrum engaged in a bucket brigade. Photo: Chewy Lin.

Upstairs in the office, certified counselors provided support to trainees and staff, finance staff managed the grant funds for the program, and management designed new programs and coordinated everything from outrigger canoe races to donations of wood and tools.

The ferocious blaze early Sunday morning reduced all of that to a small pile of rubble.
The good news is that there was no loss of life or injury to anyone, and a building can be replaced. In fact, the embers of the fire were still hot Sunday morning and WAM Director Alson Kelen was already being called by multiple donors asking how they could assist WAM to rebuild its facilities. Kelen said he spoke to several people launching a process that he hopes will result in various streams of funding opening up to build a replacement facility.

Meanwhile, partner organizations launched a gofundme page to solicit contributions for WAM. And, said Kelen, WAM staff were reaching out to local businesses and others to request donations of tools to allow training and development programs to get back into operation using the A-frame canoe house.

A sad demise to a building that housed one of the most productive NGOs in the Marshall Islands. But the canoe team is nothing if not resilient. Kelen and company appeared intent on demonstrating that this fire would be only a hiccup in the program’s ongoing climate and sustainable sea transport initiatives, youth skills trainings, and cultural promotion programs.

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