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Earthquakes’ fiery aftermath

(Article published in the Apr 13,2011 issue of Manila Standard Today)  

Probably because we observe Fire Prevention Month in March of every year, not much has been said about the danger of fire occurring as or soon after Metro Manila suffers the Big One.  The fact is, however, that earthquake fire has been as catastrophic as, if not more than, the shaking of the ground itself. Accounts of the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 leave no doubt about that.

Wikipedia says the Earthquake occurred on April 18, 1906, a Wednesday.  Many people were still in bed.  It was only 5:12 in the morning.  Without any major warning except for a foreshock at lasted for about 25 seconds, the San Andreas Fault, which runs for about 800 miles (1,300 km) from the Salton Sea in the south to Cape Mondecino in the north, moved for about 42 seconds, causing a rupture of 296 miles (477 km).  Displacement at the surface was observed at the maximum of 20 feet (6 meters); but geodetic measurements were recorded at 8 feet more (8.5 meters).

Many buildings naturally collapsed on account of the shaking.  But far greater was the loss due to the fires that immediately erupted during and soon after the ground movement.  According to Jeniffer Rosenberg, writing for Guide, “Almost immediately, fires broke out across the city from broken gas lines and stoves that had fallen over during the shaking. The fires spread ferociously across San Francisco… large and small fires had broken out all over the city; some estimates suggest as many as 60 blazes. These fires had many causes, including broken chimneys, overturned stoves, crossed electric wires and shattered gas mains.”

Most likely the most often mentioned fire is the so-called “Ham and Eggs Fire.”  A San Franciscan who was making his breakfast (of ham and eggs, I suppose) sent sparks through the cracked chimney that was damaged by the quake.  The sparks started a 24-hour long fire whose tongues lapped up an area of 30 blocks reaching some parts of the City Hall and Market Street.


It is not as if California firemen did nothing to stop the fires.  They, who were probably as competent as our own, did try to do their best. “But,” Rosenberg continues, “when hard-pressed firemen attached hoses to hydrants, they found to their horror that there was little or no water available. Most hydrants only produced a weak, sporadic trickle before running completely dry.” The water mains, too, had obviously been damaged by the quake.

Necessity is the mother of invention and the need to stop the fires gave rise to the “creation” of firebreaks.  “Fire drives out fire” is a saying as old as Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar and that may have persuaded the authorities, after much debate, to agree to the fire department’s proposal to destroy by dynamite buildings in the path of the fire with the intention of creating a vacant area in the direction where the fire is going. The expectation was that the area of demolished buildings would act as brakes to the flame; with nothing to eat, the fires would eventually die as they reached the vacant areas. 

At the end of four days and nights, 28,000 buildings in 500 blocks, about one-fourth of San Francisco had burned down.  About 6,000 lives were lost (the second largest death toll in the US); damage to property was estimated at $8.2 billion in today’s currency values.

How about us, in the here (at the post-Bayani Fernando Metro Manila) and now with Atty. Francis Tolentino at the helm, how are we (or how are we not) prepared to meet the fiery aftermath of the Big One that is to come?

The Earthquake Impact Reduction Study for Metro Manila (MMEIRS) prepared under the auspices of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority (MMDA) and the Philippine Institute of Vulcanology and Seismology (PHILVOCS) in 2004 paints a gloomy picture of what could be considered the worst case scenario.  The West Valley Fault, which starts from the Sierra Madre in the north and transects through Metro Manila to Batangas in the south, suffers an Intensity 7.2 earthquake.  What, according to the study’s calculations, could be expected to be the damage from fire? 

The MMEIRS projects about 500 fires to erupt.  At wind speed of about 3m/s, 42,100 buildings over 798 hectares are projected to be charred and about 7,900 people expected to be killed, by the fire.  Should the wind be stronger at 8m/s, the area coverage of the expected fire rises to 1,710 hectares, the buildings that could possibly be burned to 97,800 and the persons to be additionally (i.e. on top of the number of those dying from the quake itself) dead to 18,300.

The areas that were seen as vulnerable to fire is the Valenzuela-Kalookan South-Quezon west intersection. But the Navotas Bay Area, the Manila North Port Area, the South Eastern Manila City Area and Central Manila Bay Area seem to be in greater danger;  they were said to be vulnerable both to flammability as well as evacuation difficulties.

I do not mean, by bringing all these to light, to be an alarmist.  There is already, according to a recent text message of my former student and now Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, a government issuance on earthquake, tsunami and fire preparedness.   I suggest that issuance be given at the soonest possible time prominent publicity coupled with ardent compliance at all levels, both of the government and of the private sector.  MMDA chairman Francis Tolentino, another former student of mine, would do well to make sure his mayors take immediate action for the good of their constituents. 

Otherwise, Mother Nature, the greatest teacher of us all, just might give us all the flunking grade of “5”.