Firefighters face an endless battle in Manila's tinderbox slums

MANILA, June 21 (Reuters) - One scorching afternoon this month, inhabitants of a slum in the Philippine capital frantically hurled buckets of water to try to save their homes from a raging fire.

Six hours later, their efforts proved to no avail.

There have been over 2,200 fires in Manila this year and the majority of these have occurred in slum areas, data from the Bureau of Fire Protection showed.

In a country with a yawning wealth gap, the hardest hit are the hundreds of thousands of urban poor who call the shanties home. 

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Philippine firefighters tackle Manila's slums
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Philippine firefighters tackle Manila's slums
A resident watches television inside a room at Vitas Tenement, a government housing building, in Tondo, Manila, Philippines, May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
A man sits in a narrow alley as his house burns in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Fire victims rest inside a temporary shelter after their houses were gutted by a fire in Sta Cruz, Manila, Philippines, March 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Shop workers bring out office equipment outside a shopping centre being gutted by a fire at the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
A man cries after his house was gutted by a fire at a residential neighbourhood of an informal settlement, in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
A destroyed house is seen after a fire at a residential neighbourhood in Pasig, Metro Manila, Philippines, May 5, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
A resident rests inside his house gutted by a fire in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Residents attend a wake of their six relatives placed inside two coffins who died after a fire at a dilapidated building in an informal settlement, in Paranaque, Metro Manila, Philippines, May 15, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
A shopping centre burns during a fire at the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Firefighter Milan Miranda rests at Paco Fire Station in Paco, Manila, Philippines, May 4, 2018. Miranda is set to retire next year after battling blazes for 32 years. He said he was inspired by his father and uncle to join the ranks, despite the dangers. "Every fire is a challenge, especially when we lack equipment like breathing apparatus so we inhale smoke and endure the heat, risking our health and lives," Miranda said. "But this is the career given to me by God." REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Residents stand with their belongings in Laguna Lake after evacuating their homes due to a fire at a residential neighbourhood of an informal settlement in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Destroyed houses are seen during a fire at a residential neighbourhood in Las Pinas, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
A man pours water on his body during a fire at a residential neighbourhood of an informal settlement, in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
A resident throws water at his house on fire at a residential neighbourhood of an informal settlement, in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Houses burn during a fire at a residential neighbourhood of an informal settlement in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro
Firefighters carry a fire victim to an ambulance during a fire at a residential neighbourhood of an informal settlement in Muntinlupa, Metro Manila, Philippines, June 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Firefighters wait for water supply during a fire at a shopping centre in the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Firefighting protective gear hangs at Paco Fire Station in Paco, Manila, Philippines May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Firemen put out a fire as they compete during the annual Fire Olympics by firefighters nationwide in Manila, Philippines, March 20, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
A fireman gives a hand signal to fellow firefighters as a shopping centre burns at the University of the Philippines campus in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Residents walk outside Paco Fire Station in Paco, Manila, Philippines May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Flames are seen from an LPG stove in the kitchen of a resident at Vitas Tenement, a government housing building, in Tondo, Manila, Philippines, May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
Residents watch as a fireman demonstrates how to use a fire extinguisher during a fire prevention measures of Bureau of Fire Prevention government agency at BASECO compound in Tondo, Manila, Philippines, May 3, 2018. REUTERS/Erik De Castro 
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Marybeth Antier, 24, recalled with horror a recent fire that killed six members of her family. At their funeral, their bodies were squeezed into the two caskets she could afford.

"I saw the building where we live already ablaze," she said. "My child was inside but I could not enter anymore."

For the capital's thousands of firefighters, the slums are sprawling, unregulated tinderboxes.

Tangles of drooping wires run from one electric post to another along the narrow alleys of the city's most neglected communities, crowded with shacks made from plywood and coconut tree lumber.

Fire safety and building codes are unheard of.

The Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP) said the so-called informal settlers complicate efforts to save property and lives.

Fire engines struggle to navigate along pathways littered with vehicles, food carts and stalls.

Faulty electrical connections, often dangerously rigged and overloaded by residents, unattended stoves and carelessly tossed cigarettes are the main causes of the fires.

 

TWENTY-FOUR-HOUR SHIFTS

Blazes quickly engulf the shanty communities, said Pablo Sy, a pipe thread machine operator in Manila's Santa Cruz district.

"I was cooking and then we noticed the fire on our rooftop at the third floor. Everyone panicked," he said, recalling the first fire he experienced.

"Everything was burned. We weren't able to save anything because it spread so quickly."

Hours after a fire is put out, residents salvage whatever they can reuse and rebuild their homes - just as flammable as they were before.

At a fire station near the capital's biggest park, firefighters are on duty for 24-hour shifts. While they wait, they doze, work out, play sports or practice drills.

Firefighter Milan Miranda is set to retire next year after battling blazes for 32 years. He said he was inspired by his father and uncle to join the ranks, despite the dangers.

"Every fire is a challenge, especially when we lack equipment like breathing apparatus so we inhale smoke and endure the heat, risking our health and lives," Miranda said.

"But this is the career given to me by God."

(Writing and additional reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty and Karishma Singh.)

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