Tzu Chi volunteers on May 31 distributed relief goods to 874 families affected by the massive fire at Barangay Catmon, Malabon City a week earlier. The widespread destruction to property prompted the city government to declare a state of calamity on the barangay.
The severity and frequency of fires in Metro Manila can be attributed to several factors: multiple families living under one roof, the houses being made of light materials, narrow alleys, and illegal electrical connections.
An estimated 900 families in Barangay Catmon, Malabon City were left homeless by a large fire on May 24. Shortly after lunchtime, the flames began from an alleged “jumper” connection that sparked. Combined with several factors such as the wind and homes being made of light materials, the fire cut a swath across the slums.
No casualties were reported, but the fire caused millions of pesos in property damage. The day after the fire, the city council declared a state of calamity in the affected area. Under a state of calamity, the local government can release calamity funds to help with relief and recovery.
On May 31, exactly a week after the fire, 46 Tzu Chi volunteers mobilized for a large-scale relief activity at Malabon People’s Park. Eco-friendly blankets, sleeping mats, cooking pots, donated clothes, dinnerware, and sacks of rice were distributed to 874 families.
“No one wanted it to happen. We have compassion and try to help them in our little ways, at the least, we provide them some goods,” says Tzu Chi volunteer Rosa Bairan.
Most of the fire victims still remain in the evacuation centers near the park, coping with the heat and lack of elbow room. But their living conditions today are no different from when they still had a home to return to. In the slums of Barangay Catmon, a single house, no bigger than a bedroom, holds as many as five families, more or less equivalent to two dozens individuals. Almost the entire family tree comes to live under one roof even when there’s little space to go around becausehey’re unable to afford homes of their own.
The fire victims like 51-year-old Laura San Pedro have no intention of moving to another place. Aside from the fact that her Php5,000-a-month job as a housekeeper cannot pay for a new home, she has called Barangay Catmon home for years.
“I’ve lived here since I was 7 years old. I grew up, got married, started a family, and became a grandmother all in this place,” San Pedro narrates. Her two-story abode housed 22 individuals from 4 families.
The home of Gina Almadin, meanwhile, housed 18 individuals from 4 families. All she and her family members could do is to pool their limited resources and hope that it’s enough to rebuild their home. Moving elsewhere is out of the question.
“We’re just coping. We do not have other places to go. We don’t have money now,” Almadin says.
The narrow streets added to the difficulty of battling the blaze - —already at Task Force Bravo. According to reports, it took firefighters six hours. Movement was difficult, they struggled through the tight passages that could not accommodate anything larger than a motorcycle. The fire trucks could only stay on the main road. The job had to be done using hoses and buckets.
The alleged cause of the calamitous blaze, are illegal electrical connections called “jumper cables.”
Local resident Ricky Yanzon admits to the widespread use of these cables to tap into the power grid. As most breadwinners are male and only earn below minimum wage in construction jobs, the Php50 weekly expense for a jumper connection is far more enticing than having a direct line set up by the power company.
“With the hardship of our daily lives, others would rather use illegal connections because they cannot afford high electrical bills,” Yanzon says.
Another advantage of these connections is ease of installation. Power companies cannot set up connections in households whose lots they don’t own. With jumper cables, all the slum dwellers need to do is look for someone in their neighborhood who does such installations.
Jumper cables, although also used to transfer electrical currents, aren’t designed to handle the voltage that proper power lines bear. Also, they don’t have as much endurance, meaning a sudden power surge can make the cable spark and start a fire.
Power companies have been battling to remove these illegal connections, but their efforts have been futile.
For the most part, the locals are aware of the implications of using jumper cables. However, with electricity being a basic necessity and given their difficult lives, they are left with no choice. An electric fan will do better in preventing heat stroke than a hand fan.