By Izza Reynoso

MASSIVE FIRE. A drone photograph shows the widespread devastation caused by a fire that erupted in Puerto Princesa City on Wednesday morning (Feb. 7, 2024). Based on the assessment of the Puerto Princesa City Fire Station, some 920 families lost their homes to the incident. (Photo courtesy of the Puerto Princesa City Information Office)

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY – Hundreds of homes in two densely populated coastal barangays in this city were engulfed in a massive structural fire that broke out early Wednesday morning.

Based on the assessment of the Puerto Princesa City Fire Station, about 920 families living in some 450 houses were forced to relocate due to the incident.

The structures that were gutted were constructed from light materials in Bagong Silang and Pagkakaisa villages, situated near the cruise port project currently being developed by the government.

Residents reported that the strong winds exacerbated the rapid spread of the fire which, according to their accounts, began in Barangay Bagong Silang and spread towards Pagkakaisa.

Carrying only a few belongings they could salvage, they fled their engulfed houses and sought shelter on Roxas Street and Reynoso Street.

More than a hundred individuals, including children and the elderly, found refuge in the sea, utilizing the low tide to their advantage.

Some residents of stilt houses jumped into the seawater to escape the flames and thick smoke.

Margie Arcina, a resident of Bagong Silang, said she failed to retrieve any belongings during the fire as her top priority was the safety of her children.

“I didn’t save anything because I first rescued my children, then my youngest child went missing. It turned out my mother-in-law took him up there (Reynoso Street). My house was gutted by the fire,” she said.

Arcina believed that the fire started in a neighboring house, from which a couple had departed at about 2 a.m.

Cristobal Bolan and his family made their way along the city bay shoreline to flee from the fire. His father, whom he mentioned was already paralyzed, was among those rescued and evacuated, along with other relatives.

“We had no choice, but to jump to the sea because we had no way out,” he narrated. “There were many of us, those from the area near the water—my father’s there on the shore,” Bolan said.

Several children were also spotted in the water with their heads above the surface, shouting for help, according to one resident’s account.

“There were many people there in the sea —mostly children— needing to be rescued,” the resident said.

Personnel from the nearby Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) Palawan station were among the responders to the incident. They formed a line, passing buckets and basins filled with water, which they then used to douse the houses situated near the road.

Water tankers were also dispatched by the Puerto Princesa City Water District and the City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office (CDRRMO) to provide essential support.

City information officer Richard Ligad said a meeting was ongoing with the CDRRMO, the City Social Welfare and Development Office (CSWDO), the City Administrator’s Office, Schools Division Office of the Department of Education and other relevant line offices and agencies to discuss the welfare of the displaced residents.

“We are already having a meeting for the benefit of the fire victims to help determine where we will temporarily bring them,” he said.

 Gov’t assistance

House Speaker Ferdinand Martin G. Romualdez, acting as the caretaker of the third congressional district of Palawan, announced the mobilization of government resources to assist the fire victims.

He assured that the government is committed to providing immediate and effective aid to the victims, ensuring they receive the support needed to rebuild their lives.

“In these trying times, it is imperative that we come together as a nation to support our fellow Filipinos. The provision of financial assistance is a crucial step in our concerted efforts to aid in their recovery,” he said in a statement.

 With the urgency of the situation, Romualdez has endorsed the allocation of funds under the 2024 General Appropriations Act, which includes the provision of assistance, amounting to PHP10,000 per family affected, through the Assistance to Individuals in Crisis Situation (AICS) program of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

DSWD spokesperson Romel Lopez said affected individuals and families have received immediate assistance from the agency.

Lopez said DSWD 4-B (Mimaropa) has distributed 200 family food packs (FFPs), 200 sanitary kits, and other non-food items to the families.

“The immediate distribution of aid is being carried out to ensure that essential supplies reach those affected right on time. Tents that will serve as temporary shelters for the affected families are also being prepared,” he said.

He said DSWD 4-B, in coordination with the City Social Welfare and Development Office and the City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office, is currently conducting profiling of the affected families.

“This necessary step helps the agency in identifying specific needs and providing targeted assistance to those who were affected by the fire incident, according to the extent of damages the victims incurred,” Lopez said.

Meanwhile, the offices of the Speaker and Tingog Party-list are also preparing 3,500 food packs for the victims from their respective Personal Calamity Assistance Funds. (With reports from Jose Cielito Reganit/Zaldy de Layola/PNA)