Editorial: Tested by fire

OF course, local officials should take a good look at firefighters’ equipment and ability to put out fires in high-rise buildings. That’s a useful response to the fire that gutted the Metro Ayala Department Store nearly two weeks ago.

As the lack of affordable land compels developers to build medium- and high-rise offices and homes, the National Government’s Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) will need to keep up in terms of training and tools.

That’s not the only lesson available after three other fires struck Cebu City in the last 12 days. Flames that swept across three sitios in Barangay Pasil last Sunday afternoon drove some 3,500 persons out of their homes. The fire prompted Chief Insp. Noel Nelson Ababon, Cebu City fire marshal, to recommend that roads in the three affected communities be widened before survivors build houses there again.

City Hall has shown it can summon the will to widen roads or re-block congested neighborhoods after a fire. Can it do that in other vulnerable communities without waiting for a calamity to strike first?

“Fire is a complex phenomenon that transforms the urban environment in different ways according to the political, economic, and social forces at play,” said Jerome Tadie in the May 2008 conference “Flammable Cities: Fire, Urban Environment, and Culture in History.”

According to the conference notes shared online by the German Historical Institute, regulations can be effective in preventing large fires. These include requiring the use of fire-resistant building materials; asking “citizens to equip themselves and be ready to fight fires,” such as by organizing volunteer brigades; and ensuring that building codes are consistently enforced.

Yet fires also create opportunities for change. Hamburg recovered from a fire that left more than 20,000 homeless in 1842, by rebuilding itself as a modern metropolis. Singapore survived a fire in 1961 that leveled more than 240,000 square meters of slum dwellings. In its place rose public-private housing programs that, according to Nancy Haekyung Kwak, served as “the crucible” that made Singapore the modern city-state it is today.

Here at home, wider roads in communities that have survived fires are crucial. But they’re only part of the answer.
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