When the smoke clears…
Tons of garbage floated alongside debris of charred wood. Residents hurried about, trying to save whatever belongings they could. There were no flash floods, but I was wading through knee-deep flood waters to cover the aftermath of a fire in Manila’s equivalent of Venice.
A fire broke out at night in one of Manila’s most densely populated cities, Malabon City, known for its year-long floods due to the coastal city’s gradual sinking. When the smoke cleared at dawn the next morning, an estimated 300 houses were burned to the ground.
As I went through the narrow streets, measuring only half a yard wide, almost all the residents I saw warned me: “Be careful!”, or “Don’t move back, you will fall in neck-deep murky water!” They were not exaggerating. Everywhere I looked, heads were sticking out among charred wood floating in the blackened water.
They moved carefully as their bare feet did the work. I called it ingenuity, as they could grope valuable and recyclable items buried deep in foul-smelling water just by using their feet. Even children dived in. Some focused on collecting metal items and disconnected electric wires, which could be sold for a few precious pesos per kilo at nearby junk shops. While a few lamented their fate, most of the residents laughed, despite losing their houses, moving on to rebuild what was left of their property.
I was not a pet lover but I was disheartened seeing dead and hurt animals. I saw a dog barely surviving on a flattened roof, his left eye burnt. There was a cat, burnt to its skin, clinging on a post to stay dry while a lifeless dog floated by with gutted belongings.
Months ago, another huge fire occurred and as I arrived in the area, black smoke billowed into the sky. I ran and leaped, literally, to go near the fire as residents ran away with their belongings and families. I followed the fire hoses stretched out on the pavement and found myself over the riverbank. I twisted my wrist, and got a wide angle view to shoot the general view of the quickly spreading fire. I twisted back, and I went tight to shoot residents saving their belongings. I saw a man fleeing the inferno holding his rooster. Another man went back and forth throwing a bucket of murky water into his burning house. Some trapped residents swam their way out on the other side of the river.
I went over to the other street and found a more chaotic scene. Sirens rang out, flashing red and blue lights at every corner. The main avenue was covered in thick, black smoke. A woman emerged carrying her school-aged child. Fire trucks pulled back as strong winds fanned the blaze and razed more houses. The fire marshal ordered his men to move back as a burning electrical post threatened to collapse. I stood beside the fire fighters as I took pictures. I felt the intense heat on my skin as we moved closer. I was told the heat reached about 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit). The heat and smoke hindered my movements. I cooled off by splashing water from a fire hydrant on my face. I clicked more photos while breathing through my wet towel, as fire fighters struggled to contain the flames. The fire broke out late at night and about a thousand families lost their homes and livelihood.
Fire occurs mostly in heavily populated slum areas, where informal settlers build their houses of light materials, mostly of wood and plastics, so close together, even piled one on top of another. They secure their rusty tin roofs with used tires — to keep it from flying away during stormy weather — while a maze of electrical wires crisscross narrow streets, not big enough for fire trucks to maneuver their way through.
Faulty electrical connections, unattended candles, flames in the kitchen or a simple cigarette butt thrown onto a garbage heap are common causes of fires in the congested capital of Manila, home to about 13 million people.
As the smoke clears, all that remains are numbers — number of homeless families, destroyed houses, injured people and animals, and sometimes lifeless bodies.