March marks Fire Prevention Month in the Philippines. It is supposed to be the start of the summer season and the month where thermometers burst. Well, my idea of summer is always lying on a hammock near the beach and feeling the breeze; and I would not know much about thermometers bursting. But I do know some things about Fire Prevention Month. And I learned some of the things I learned literally in the midst of hellish fires.
Back then, covering fires was one the things I used to do often as a field reporter in Cagayan de Oro. And despite already being a desk editor in Cebu, there were some instances when I had to be “pinch hitter” for a reporter and get to cover fires in the Queen City of the South as well.
Among the fires that I covered in my hometown was the fire which gutted an old cinema house which had both a grand as well as a soiled reputation. Called the Gala Cinema, some say it was built in the 1960s and it was among the thriving film houses in the city then. But by the 1980s, when better cinema houses sprung all over the city, Gala was relegated to being the cinema of the poor. It spiralled further in the 1990s, when cinema houses started struggling against the proliferation of portable media such as VCDs and later, DVDs. By the early 2000s, Gala was only a long shadow of its former self.
Sometime in 2004, as we were conducting our usual roving around the city, we saw the something aglow in the night sky towards the city’s busy Cogon Market district. We quickly made our way and we found out that fire was consuming portions of the cinema. Considering the light materials and paint which had thickened on Gala’s walls through the years, the fire quickly grew strong and big. So much so that more than a dozen fire engines could not stop it from spreading to the nearby hardware stores and an information technology school. Within minutes, Gala was gone.
Months later, another fire broke just a few meters away from the site of Gala. And it was almost right smack in the middle of the busy Cogon Market district. Good thing though, it broke at dawn so the roads weren’t clogged. This time, it gutted down more than a dozen establishments and threatened a dozen more. Since several of the establishments threatened were jewelry shops, some opportunistic onlookers had a field day harvesting the precious jewelry, watches, and glittering stones.
In both cases, my team and I got wet after being hit indirectly by fire hoses and water cannons of the engines. Being that we tread under the glaring flames of burning buildings, our clothes would partially get dry with some of that burnt-cloth smell. Also, in both cases, I had to rush back to the TV station more then five kilometers away to file my story for the morning national news program. The desk editor then in Manila became a good friend who never failed to ask me if we had good stories which we gathered during the night. And he was all the more interested in the more recent ones, like fires which occurred at dawn. But we never complained, instead we viewed it as a source of pride being able to cover something and being able to file it to a national news program as soon as we are asked to.
A couple of years later, I was in already in Cebu City. And it was one of those nights when the reporter assigned had to go on leave, so I took on her shift (in what we in the regional networks call, roving desk editing). Suddenly fire broke to the south of the city, so we quickly raced to the scene with the fire trucks and other media outlets. By the time we got there, the evacuees were already everywhere, with whatever belongings they were able to spare from the flames.
The fire had erupted in the middle of a huge informal settlers’ colony and the firemen were having a very difficult time getting to the hose to where the fire was. But as soon as they were able to make one long and sturdy hose, a team went in. Being that we were interested in getting good shots for our video, I told my cameraman that we needed to go in with the team. And so we did. Little did we know that on our way in, the fire had grown big and very strong since winds were fanning it in all directions. But of course, being on the ground, you can only see what little flame is visible on the sides of the houses or the roofs.
A few minutes later, we got to the house where the fire was said to have started. And the fireman manning the hose was already pouring all the water he can on the house. The fire investigator was also looking intently, waiting for the time when he could get inside the house and go about his work. My cameraman was also busy taking his shots unmindful of the heat building up in the area. I on the other hand, concerned myself with the walls of the condition of houses around us. It was only then that I realized that we were already completely surrounded by flames. All the houses around us were burning.
The only thing that kept me calm in the midst of that burning furnace was the attitude of the fire investigator. He just sat beside the fireman manning the hose as if he was in a shed, waiting for the right bus to arrive. And you could not see any sign of alarm on his face. He was just patiently waiting for the flames around us to die. And so, like him, I just sat beside my cameraman, as my cameraman took videos of the fireman fighting the flames around us.
After almost an hour of being trapped in the middle of that ring of fire, we saw an exit. And from that opening, another team of firemen charged in with another long hose. And they started hitting the burning houses with what they had. In a few minutes, more and more firemen went into the breach and joined us. The other teams also went in further into the huge informal settlers’ colony.
As it was in previous fire coverage in the city and in Cagayan de Oro, the cameraman and I would usually get wet with all the water being thrown in all directions. And after spending some time in in the shadow of the raging fire, we would usually feel like some parts of our clothing had dried. But in that lone instance in Cebu though, I felt that my clothes had dried up (I was wearing a fleece jacket, black shirt and jeans) and it even felt like they had been ironed to the point of getting burned. I smelled crisp.
By the time we got out of the area, hundreds of houses made of light materials had been burned down. And it took almost eight hours before a “fire out” was declared for the whole area. Again, we raced to the station and filed the story for both the local and national morning show (as well as the news programs for the early evening).
Fires are probably one of the most risky coverage a journo can get into, most especially if you are with a TV news crew because you have to get up close and personal with the scene of the incident and the people on the scene. In the process, you could get trapped in an area, surrounded with huge flames, pinning your hope on a lone fireman with a hose. If you don’t get a hold of yourself, you’d panic and do something stupid. And so if there’s one thing I learned in covering fires, it is to keep yourself together despite the chaos, fear, and confusion which abounds in the scene. You lose that, you’d injure yourself. Worse, you could get yourself and your crew killed.
Oh, did I mention that our house got burned down when I was in sixth grade?