Sunday, May 09

A look into the nature of fires in Metro Manila

May 31, 2018 | Jonas Trinidad

A subtle smile is this recipient’s response to the love and care she received from Tzu Chi. She’s among the 874 recipients of eco-friendly blankets, sleeping mats, dinnerware, donated clothes, and sacks of rice. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

Story Highlights

  • 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.

‘Jumper’ connections

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.

  • Amidst the hollowed-out remains, the site of the May 24 fire shows signs of rebuilding. According to reports, an estimated 500 homes were destroyed. 【Photo by John Jay Rosete】

  • This resident cuts electrical wire spared by the fire, lest it triggers another disaster. Although the Bureau of Fire Protection is still looking into the incident, preliminary investigations point to illegal electrical lines as the cause. 【Photo by John Jay Rosete】

  • Ricky Yanzon (left) is among the hundreds of families left without a home after the fire. He explains that jumper cables are prevalent among the community because of their affordable rate and ease of installation. 【Photo by John Jay Rosete】

  • Tens of families share the space of one of four makeshift evacuation centers in Barangay Catmon. For most of them, this has been their home for over a week. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • The unbearable afternoon heat didn’t deter this queue of fire victims from getting their claim stubs from Tzu Chi. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • On May 31, the beneficiaries gathered at Malabon People’s Park for the relief activity. Due to the limited space of the venue, the distribution was done in two batches that were both held in the morning. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Tzu Chi volunteers show their sympathy to the fire victims through the song “One Family.” 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • A recipient is moved to tears upon watching the volunteers perform “One Family.” 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Gina Almadin trades her claim stub for a myriad of relief goods such as this eco-friendly blanket. She would need all the help she could get, given that she has 18 family members to care for. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Back at her place at the evacuation center, Gina does what she can to cope with the difficult reality of losing her home. Some of her family members are back at the site of their razed home to safeguard their place in the compound. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】

  • Similarly, Laura San Pedro (left) keeps herself busy with household chores. Moving to another place is out of the question, as she has called Barangay Catmon home for the longest time. 【Photo by Jonas Trinidad】