As though to mock the very notion itself, fire struck the seven-story Gateway 2000 building on Araneta Avenue in Quezon City last Saturday and the structure continued to burn for 35 hours—or a day later, which happened to be the first day of Fire Prevention Month.
Why did it take that long for firemen to subdue the blaze? They were reportedly not allowed to enter the commercial building and to go up to the higher floors, where highly combustible materials such as paint, tarpaulin sheets, clothing and styrofoam were said to be stored, because the enormity of the fire threatened the stability of the structure. They did stay on patrol to ensure that the blaze did not spread to the other buildings in the vicinity.
It wasn’t the only fire to hit the metro on the eve of Fire Prevention Month. In Barangay Pinagbuhatan in Pasig City, an unattended gas stove led to a conflagration that destroyed a community of 1,000 families and an adjacent market, and also injured five residents and a fireman. The day after, a blaze in Cubao, Quezon City, destroyed 13 houses. And just on the second day of March, three more fires would light up the night sky—one in a residential area in Parola Compound and one more on Juan Luna Street, both in Tondo, Manila, and the third one in Barangay Payatas in Quezon City.
Nights may still be a bit balmy these days, but the days are getting inexorably hotter as the summer months barrel in, bringing the greater possibility of fire. There are dryer, more combustible things around and millions of households are keeping electric fans and air-conditioners running for hours on end to beat the heat, leading to incidents of overheating or short-circuiting “octopus” (multiple-socket) connections.
While the Bureau of Fire Protection says that fire incidents in January and February were lower than last year’s (about 2,000 as against 3,800 for the same period in 2014), the statistics remain sobering. In March 2013, fire incidents totaled 1,098. That figure would rise to 1,702 in March 2014. The casualties, too, were higher—20 fatalities and 65 injuries two years ago, 25 fatalities and 75 injuries a year later.
The estimated damage is also enormous: over P244 million in March 2013, and a slightly lower P224-plus million in the same period in 2014, despite last year having registered more fire incidents. The discrepancy could be explained by the fact that more residential areas were affected in 2013 (463) than in 2014 (437). Mercantile areas damaged by fire were also higher two years ago (33) compared to last year (30).
The most common causes of fires cited by the BFP are: electrical connections that go haywire, and lighted cigarette butts carelessly left or thrown away. The greater load imposed on the electrical system during summer by households continuously using fans, air-conditioners and other appliances may lead to overheating, improper socket connections and the like. The BFP says a household should check electrical circuits regularly, and if possible turn off the main fuse before the house is left unoccupied. Appliances should also not be left running uninterrupted or, worse, unattended; they should be unplugged when not in use. Special attention must be paid to appliances that involve open flames, such as gas stoves, and homeowners must double-check that LPG tanks are securely turned off once cooking is done.
Of course, arson—deliberately setting fire to property—is another matter. The fire in Barangay San Roque, Cubao, was reportedly started by a man who was earlier heard fighting with his wife. He confessed afterwards that he had set fire to their room to spite his wife. His criminal caper occasioned a two-hour fire that left 12 shanties in the informal-settler community destroyed, 26 families displaced, and one resident dead, a 50-year-old believed to have been sound asleep when his home was engulfed by the flames.
It’s only the beginning of the summer season. The days will become even more unbearably hot—perfect tinder for anything than can ignite flames, from a throwaway cigarette butt to an overheating household appliance. While the BFP has said it is acquiring about 400 new fire trucks this year, the agency remains chronically underfunded; GMA News has reported, for instance, that the BFP in Naga City has fire protection equipment for only 16 of its 56 firefighters.
Saving lives and protecting property during fires is the mandate and sworn duty of firemen, but they can’t do it alone. The public has as crucial a responsibility in this task.
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