Lessons I learned from our recent experience with fire in Manila

02 September 2016

It has been about 2 weeks since a huge fire hit our family compound and neighbor's houses in Manila.  That wasn't our first scary experience with fire but it was our first fire that really caused harm and damage to our own house.  Here are some lessons I learned from that experience, hoping that people will understand and learn from it as well.

1.  Fire spreads fast

From the moment I saw the orange glow from our window to the time we got out of the house and into the street, the fire had already raged and was burning my aunt's house which was right across ours, like our windows were a meter apart, I think.  It took all of 2 minutes.  You have to judge immediately how much time you have.  At a crucial juncture, you may not be able to save anything at all but yourselves.

2.  A raging fire is scary

A raging fire is scary so you have to have your wits about you.  No matter how prepared you think you are, your first instinct is to run but you have to look out for your family, particularly if you have kids and older family members.   So, it's important to keep the panic down to keep others calm too.  I was fearful and my heart was hammering in my chest but I had to stay focused and calm.  If you show your kids that you're afraid, they'll be afraid too and may become hard to control and at this critical time, they may effectively delay your efforts to leave as quick as possible.  Give orders that are precise so they'll be able to follow immediately.  That is what I did, just instructed them on what to do and we all left the house immediately.

3.  Bring only important, irreplaceable stuff with you

I only had a few minutes to spare as the fire was very close so I only had time to pick up my file folder containing receipts for house and other payments and my bag that had my phone, money, identification and some toiletries (I'm a mom, my bag has my home or so they say!)  I also stuffed Patrick's mobile into my bag as I was grabbing it.  On hindsight, I should've taken my folder with our birth documents too which was right beside the other folder that I took but that slipped my mind.

4.  Take your portable gadgets with you

Yes, I know I said bring only important, irreplaceable stuff but gadgets contain vital information too and cost a lot to replace if gone.  But I say it because it was unfortunate that our tablet was lost, not from the fire but because of someone's sticky fingers.  Now, I don't necessarily blame the firefighters because I would think that they'd be too busy fighting the fire to even actually take anything from the people that they're saving.  It may be that there are some strangers who take advantage of the opportunity to get into other people's houses during the commotion.  Portable gadgets are easily taken and concealed, you see, compared to other valuable bulky items like the television set or dvd player.

5.  Watching your house and belongings burn is agonizing

You are watching everything you've worked hard for dissolve in flames.  You wonder how much of your home is left.  You worry about how to rebuild.  You worry where you'll spend the night and the next few nights after.  You worry about how to even get to your job the next day. We were relieved when we were finally able to get into our house to find that we only had water problems to deal with.  My aunt wasn't as fortunate.

6.  Cleanup is a painstaking process

You just don't deal with the aftermath of the burn.  You have to deal with waterlogged furniture, appliances and floors.  It's like being hit by two of nature's greatest destroyers.  Nothing was burned in our home but bedrooms and the living room were flooded. Firefighters doused everything with water to prevent the fire from spreading to our home.  So, curtains, upholstered furniture and the beds were drenched.

The smoky air also lingers.  It was already a week but the burnt smell continued to waft from my aunt's burned house, especially when they started clearing up the debris.  Ashes also float in the air and the dirt around the house is black.  Those with asthma will have it bad and I suggest wearing masks ( I should've).  The atmosphere was choking.

Washing of clothes and other belongings (those that can still be used) will take days to finish.   My aunt was using two washing machines at a time to deal with everything and she was at it for about a week before it tapered off.  We also had to rewash some of our clothes that were left hanging in our laundry room at the roofdeck level.  They were stinky from smoke.  Of course, our beddings and curtains also had to be washed too.

7.  Keeping a stash of clothes for donation is ideal

I usually keep a collection of clothes in my closet.  These are clothes. mostly T-shirts, that Patrick gets from car events and some that we don't use anymore but aren't shabby.  We keep them in case of a situation like this where someone needs clothes.  I simply took this pile of clothes and gave it to my aunt. They come in handy because people who suffered in fires, usually have nothing to change into and that's one of the priorities.  Towels, slippers and shoes are also helpful.  My cousins needed office clothes too because they have jobs to go to.  So, reorganizing closets regularly can help collect clothes that are rarely used and can be used for situations like these.

8.  The community should come together to help

In the Philippines, our family orientation is such that nuclear and extended families live together and most times, within a neighborhood.  Family reaching out to help during a calamity is a no-brainer.  But, it's not common for the community to help.  There is no volunteerism which is sad because cleanup and repairs can be done fast and quick if there are more people to help, and it's a big weight off the victims' shoulders if they don't have to pay for other people to help them.

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