Playing with fire

By Jobers R. Bersales |March 06,2014 - 11:00 AM

Summer is just around the corner and once again Cebu, like the rest of the country will most probably experience a spike in the number of fires, intended or not this month. It is thus no wonder that March has always been designated by the Bureau of Fire Protection as National Fire Prevention Month.

Before the inauguration of the Buhisan Dam and Fuente Osmeña in 1912, one imagines how futile it must have been to put out fires with just a small tank of water and a hand pump.
When the revolution against Spain finally spread to Cebu in April 1898, the business district, also called Ermita, was razed and destroyed by bombardment from the Spanish ship Maria Cristina. All that people could do was to run away from the battle scene, as it were. Rebuilding proceeded in earnest after the Americans occupied Cebu, widening some of the old Spanish-era carriage roads, and aligning others especially that of Colon Street. Still, then as now, fires persisted nonetheless.

At 9 o’clock in the morning of Dec. 8, 1902, for example, two Chinese laborers overturned a lamp at one of the shops where they worked while stabbing at each other.

What started probably as a simple squabble over a pretty Cebuana resulted in a dreary and sad Christmas for shop owners, mostly Chinese in the four blocks of the Lutao district that were destroyed (roughly where La Nueva and Prince Warehouse Club near Cebu City Hall are right now). The loss was valued at more than a million dollars.

Sadly, two Chinese shopkeepers, not the original two culprits, were killed while trying to save their money from burning buildings which expectedly were made of light materials.

Some time in the middle of March 1905, another big fire destroyed much of the commercial district of Cebu with a loss also estimated at more than a million dollars at the time. Once again, the fire started at one of the small Chinese shops, resulting in the destruction of the waterfront warehouses owned by the wealthy Mariano Veloso.

Also destroyed were the commercial establishments of Kuenzle and Streiff, J.H. Kipp and Co., MCLeod and Co., and Richter and Co. as well as that of the 20th Century Bazaar. All buildings facing Infante Belasco de Garay, Alzaro, Nueva Victoria and Felipe II streets, all of them around the blocks along what is today known as M.C. Briones, D. Jakosalem and Magallanes streets. Macleod and Co. lost its warehouse which had hemp valued at US $180,000 stored inside. Kerr and Company also suffered heavy losses as did many Chinese firms with shops full of stocks of merchandise.

Fortunately, many of these companies had been insured, knowing full well that, without fire hydrants and a steady supply of water (that would come only with the inauguration of Buhisan Dam in 1912) fires were a sure formula for bankruptcy.

As if to pressure Engr. Eusebius J. Halsema to quickly finish the design of Buhisan Dam, another fire broke out at the business section of Cebu on Dec. 31, 1909. Once again, Chinese shop owners bore the brunt of the damage. The fire started at one of the Chinese eateries in the business section and for some nerve-wracking moments, threatened to devour the rest of the city because almost everything in its path were shops constructed of light materials.

The local fire department could do nothing but watch until the fire died down hours later.

The last conflagration before the inauguration of the Buhisan Dam and the provision of water direct to household faucets occurred around the first week of August 1911. Damage to the business district was placed at half-a-million dollars. Arson was suspected and a well-known Chinese businessman was arrested on suspicion of burning his store in order to cash in on his insurance claims.

Probably the most deadly of the fires that struck Cebu during the American colonial period happened in Opon on Christmas eve of 1926 at a theater owned by the Philippine Refining Co. The fire happened at 8 o’clock in the evening while about a thousand persons were attending a show. The first started at the projection room where the film being shown caught fire.

I have personally experienced some moments in my childhood when films being shown did catch fire but would be quickly put out, amidst the audience booing and shouting in the darkness while repairs on the projector and the film were done quickly.

In the 1920s, unfortunately, movie houses and projection rooms were all made of wood, a favorite fuel of fires. Had it not been for the quick thinking of an American named Barnum (perhaps related to the circus mogul in America?) who opened a hole in one of the theater walls with an ax, the death toll  would have been much higher, although the demise of 13 lives was still unfortunate. Loss was valued at P25,000 but the theater was insured. Unfortunately, the victims were probably not.

Despite the destruction that fire has historically wrought, we never learn our lessons from the past. I can only hope that the time will come when the month of March as National Fire Prevention Month will be nothing more than a memory and our firefighters shall have more time to rest instead of being on their toes all the time during  the most fire-prone month of the year.

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