While I was attending a worship service on February 26, I was suddenly jolted in my seat when fire trucks blared loudly as they passed in front of our church. For a split second, I thought the community near us was on fire.
Until I realized they were probably just drumming up awareness for Fire Prevention Month which is celebrated, or rather commemorated, every March. The month was selected by the Bureau of Fire Protection ostensibly because fires were recorded most frequently in this month. It makes sense, because at this month our weather transitions from the chilly amihan to sunny and hot skies.
For those in the cultural sector, this month is an opportune time to remember how destructive fires can be not just to life and property, but also history and heritage. What comes to mind first are the destructive fires of war which destroyed much of Manila in 1945, but also much of the historical core of the town of Sariaya.
However, destructive fires can start even in peacetime. We lost the historical core of Lopez through fire on May 29, 1968. Because of this, old photographs of the town are hard to come by, even if it had been a town since June 30, 1857.
What is disappointing and also regrettable is how some of these fires start. On May 21, 1962, a great fire destroyed the home of Mariano Ponce in Baliwag, Bulacan. One suspected cause was a cigarette butt haphazardly thrown by a worker which ignited the grain stored at the ground floor of the house. Eventually, it was ruled as due to faulty wiring.
That fire destroyed many precious artifacts: a first printing copy of El Filibusterismo, letters between Ponce and Sun Yat-sen who founded modern China, an original photograph of Ponce with Rizal and Marcelo H. del Pilar, a paper mold of a nude woman given by Rizal to Ponce as a gift, and old kamagong furniture.
What made the fire tragic was that the house was proposed to be donated to the government for use as a cultural center, and its contents were to be exhibited in celebration of Mariano Ponce's birth centennial the following year. It would have even been more tragic if there was a loss of life. A caretaker, Cornelio Gamboa, jumped out the window and was slightly injured.
Fires still cause damage to our history today. We mourned the fire that destroyed the Faculty Center of the University of the Philippines Diliman onApril 1, 2016 led to the loss of countless books, manuscripts, recordings, and other scholarly and creative works. We were stressed to hear fire happening in the offices occupied by the National Archives of the Philippines in May 2018 and September 2021. (Thankfully, no historic records were harmed in both incidents.)
We remember how fire destroyed many heritage homes in Boac, Marinduque in July 2018. Fire caused by faulty wiring destroyed the Roman Catholic parish of Pandacan and its historic Santo Niño in July 2020, and it also destroyed the Vicente Illustre Mansion in Quiapo in December 2022.
This year's Fire Prevention Month theme is, "Sa Pag-iwas sa Sunog, Hindi ka Nag-iisa." Hopefully, in advocating the protection of our heritage structures from fire, we can also say the same. Sana, hindi kami nag-iisa.