FIRE! It’s a word that never crossed my mind during my childhood in Bontoc, Mountain Province. For other residents, it could have been a subject of private conversation. In our family though, we never talked about it.
June 12, 1965 and I was at home for summer vacation. My parents were also at home. Maureen, my younger sister, was enrolled in summer classes and Fe, the youngest, was attending a religious summer camp in the Visayas. In our family of five, there were only three of us at home.
It was Saturday afternoon. My mother just arrived from her morning duty at the hospital so it must have been 3:30 p.m. She and my father were in the garden watering the plants of pechay (bok choy) and Baguio beans.
I came to know more of Bontoc, Mountain Province in 1952 when our family -- father, Honesto Cariño Belen; mother, Ana Lumbaya Kay-an; and two sisters -- moved from Manila to Bontoc Poblacion. I would spend the next eight years of my life in town, from 3rd through 6th grade at Bontoc Central School and secondary school at the then Mountain Provincial High School.
Bontoc was the capital of the Mountain Province. It was one of the sub-provinces that made up the former Mountain Province, which lies in the central Cordillera mountain range of northern Luzon, Philippines. The other sub-provinces were Ifugao, Benguet and Kalinga-Apayao. Some government officials clamored for division of Mountain Province. So in 1966, it was divided into the provinces of Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga-Apayao and Mountain Province. Kalinga and Apayao were made into separate provinces in 1995. All the provinces retained their names except Bontoc, which became Mountain Province. The latest grouping was the establishment of the Cordillera Administrative Region (CAR) in 1987 composed of the provinces of Abra, Apayao, Benguet, Ifugao, Kalinga and Mountain Province. Abra, which used to be part of Ilocos Region, was the latest addition to the CAR.
Bontoc is a valley, centrally located in the Cordillera mountain range. I remember the roads going out of town. There’s one stretching north to Kalinga. Another reaches east to Ifugao, where the world-renowned Banaue Rice Terraces are found. And the third road extends south to Benguet. Baguio City, the summer capital of the Philippines, is located in Benguet.
Suddenly, I heard people shouting, FIRE! FIRE! I ran to the front window of our living room, the window facing the main road and market. When I looked outside, people were running to the south of town. I looked to my left and saw smoke billowing from the Cawed’s residence, which was about 10 houses away from our house. I went down to the pavement in front of our house. My father and mother joined me.
There were dozens of people on the pavement. We were all watching the fire.
I asked someone, “How did the fire start?”
Someone turned to me and said, “Someone was cooking and the kitchen got burned.”
It was as vague as that. I was unable to get the exact details. (I later learned that the gas tank exploded when someone was cooking.)
When we arrived in Bontoc in October 1952, we already had a house in front of the market in the Poblacion. My parents had built a two-story house on a 250 square meter lot my father inherited from his parents. (The Cariño-Belen family resided in Bontoc from the early 1900s until 1945. My paternal grandparents died in Bontoc – my grandfather in 1926 and grandmother in 1934.) The exterior of the house was covered with galvanized iron sheets and the interior was made of wood. We lived in the second story. The first story had two separate units, which were rented out to two families who set up their sari-sari (general retail) stores.
Our house had a wooden gate. To reach the second floor, you went up the concrete steps and ended in a balcony where there were wooden planks to sit on. Around the balcony, some wooden structures were jutting out where you could place potted plants. Beside the main door on the right side, there was a deer’s antler placed as though it was guarding our door.
My father went to the Cawed’s house. Later, he came back and said, “It’s still far away.” So, he returned.
We did nothing. We went back to what we were doing at home.
Suddenly, from the Cawed’s residence, the fire jumped across the street on the same block and ate the houses there. The fire also jumped to the end of the block where our house was located. The fire ate the stores of Mr. Tio and Bontoc Lumber and Hardware Co., and house of the Acofos. The fire was approaching our house.
I asked my mother, “What do we do?
“Let’s pack all that we could get.”
My father came running to our house as soon as he saw other houses near ours being burned.
The fire was approaching. At this point, we began packing.
From the balcony, you entered a four by six meter living room. On the right side, there was a window and when opened, you could see the market. On the left side, there’s a window from where you could see the concrete steps going up to the balcony. Facing the living room, you saw two doors about three meters apart. One led to my parent’s bedroom and the other to our (three sisters) bedroom. A rattan sofa set with cushions was in the middle of the living room – a long one where three persons could sit and two sofas where one person could sit on each. A small rattan table accompanied the sala set. Near the window to the left was a table with a Philips radio on top.
In my parent’s bedroom, they had a semi-double steel bed and a built-in bookcase. The latter contained National Geographic magazines and Reader’s Digest. In our bedroom, we had three steel beds, one for each of us. The closets in both bedrooms were built-in.
Few words were spoken. There was no time to cry; there was only time to pack. We kept on packing all the things we could. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! This was what we were all thinking. We had two or three suitcases to put our belongings in. They were not enough, so we used boxes. I can’t even recall where we got those boxes. We also used blankets and bed sheets to put our things.
I went to our bedroom and packed our clothes, mattresses, pillows, linens and other things. My mother went to their bedroom and packed their things in the closet -- clothes, curtains, linens and so on.
I went to my parent’s room and saw about 50 issues of National Geographic magazines. Shall I get them or not? I asked myself. I ended up packing them. I also included the books on Bible stories, a health book and a cookbook.
From the living room, you proceeded to the dining room. There was a window on the east side and when you opened it, you saw the mountain. There was a window on the north side and when you opened it, you also saw the mountain. A wooden dining table stood in the middle of the room. It had six matching chairs.
To the right of the dining room was the kitchen. A wooden cabinet -- where we place the pots and pans, plates and cutlery -- separated the dining room from the kitchen. A gas stove, about half a meter high and fueled by kerosene, stood at the left side of the kitchen. On top of the cabinet was a portable oven. The front part was made of glass while the sides were made of steel. It was open below so you just put it on top of the gas stove. There was a temperature gauge behind the glass but it was kaput.
The fire was approaching. My father and mother carried our dining table and brought it down the pavement in front of our house. They brought down the six chairs; they brought down the four beds and mattresses; they brought down the rattan sofa set and its cushions; they brought down the two Singer sewing machines. One was with a foot pedal and must have weighed 10 kilos. The other was a much lighter portable sewing machine with its own table and could be detached. We also brought down the portable stove and oven. We brought down all the kitchenware.
I asked my father, “Where do we bring our things?”
“To Bontoc Central School.”
We went to the school and placed our things in one room, we returned to our house; we went to the school and placed our things in the same room and returned to our house. Forth and back, forth and back -- this went on for an hour or so.
Later, Uncle Law-ed, my mother’s cousin from Samoki and Uncle Fokleg, her cousin from Chakchakan, arrived. One by one, they carried the rattan sala set to the school. They carried the dining table and chairs, four beds, the electric sewing machine and its table, and another sewing machine with a foot pedal. We would ever be grateful to my mother’s relatives.
We were able to bring out many things before the fire reached our house. Lucky for us, I would say now.
The fire ate our house. It was burned to the ground. Ashes, only ashes. All black. My parents were looking tired and dejected. I was crying. However, there was nothing we could do except to go to the school where our things were.
Recalling the houses near the Cawed residence -- to our left was the Acofo residence, Bontoc Lumber and Hardware, Tio’s store, and Co’s Store and Bakery that was at the farthest end of our block. Opposite these houses and on the left side if you face the Cawed residence were the Bontoc Pharmacy, Calaoa Residence and others, I’m unable to recall now.
In front of our house was the market. Within the vicinity of the market was the Camarillo’s store where they sold school supplies.
To the right of our house was Dr. and Mrs. Alfonso Floresca’s residence where the barber, Mr. Abad, and his family, were renting a part. Farther right was the house of William Faculo and family.
The sun was already setting when we finished bringing our things to the school.
We stayed in one room with all our things crammed in the place. We went to sleep. We were exhausted. We recalled the events of that afternoon. How were we able to bring down those things from the house to the pavement and carry some things to the school?
Come to think of it now, I still consider ourselves fortunate. Yes, we lost our house. But we were able to bring out most of our belongings. And most importantly, members of our family in Bontoc are still alive.
The next day after the fire, when I was in the school room, there was a knock on our door. I opened it and saw a woman wearing a tapis (woven skirt) with a labba (container made of woven rattan) on her head. She requested for a container and when she put down the labba, she measured about five cans of rice and put it in the container.
She said, “Siya na yangkhay nanma-igwa mi tay sapasap.” (This is only what we could give because many have been affected.)
Salamat (Thank you).
In hindsight, I should have asked for her name.
There could have been other Bontoc residents, who helped us. This essay is a way of thanking them.
A week or two after the fire, our parents built a small one-story house on our lot. We brought back the things we were able to bring out from the old house. Our things were still intact however, placed in a different setting.
And so the word “FIRE,” which might have been a subject of private conversation among the Bontoc residents, became a reality. A part of Bontoc Poblacion disappeared only to remain in some residents’ memory.
A snippet I heard after the fire was: One of the salesmen of Bontoc Lumber and Hardware carried the box with the list of peoples’ loans.
In April 2014, I shared my story with my sisters and requested feedback.
Maureen replied and wrote:
“When I went home at the end of summer classes and from some stories that filtered later, some snippets I gathered were---
You were making hotcakes then and there was dough left when the fire was about to reach the house. What you did was place all the utensils together with the dough so when you were in the school, you found out that there was still dough to be made into hotcakes. Can you remember this?
You and Mama also spread out the sheets and dumped clothes into them, which were carted away to the school.
Another thing is that, this was the first big fire after the war and Bontoc Municipio did not have any fire fighting truck so everything was by hose and passing the bucket.
In fact, fire trucks came all the way from Baguio and even Camp John Hay sent their fire trucks to help put out the fire.”
“When I came home, the story goes that Mama just had the new toilet and bathroom built upstairs and she didn’t want anybody to use them till after June 12th. When June 12th came, the fire broke out from the Cawed’s house and spread fast to the Poblacion because it was windy. The fire stopped at the bakery and house of Mr. and Mrs. Co. They had been praying hard to God and they were spared. ©15April2023YKBelen
This essay is an edited version of the one written on June 18, 2014.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
YVONNE KAY-AN BELEN is a Bontok Igorot from Alab, Bontoc, Mountain Province. She worked as a secondary school teacher and physician in the Philippines before her family emigrated to the Netherlands in 1985. Unable to practice her medical profession because she couldn’t master the Dutch language, she turned to English and honed her writing skills. The result was the essay, “Flavors from my Bontoc Igorot Roots,” which was published in the book, A Taste of Home: Pinoy Expats and Food Memories.
Yvonne was one of the editors of the book, Igorot by Heart, published by the Igorot Global Organization; she was also one of the editors of the book, Travels, Travails & Triumphs of Igorot Cordillerans in Europe published by ICBE (Igorot Cordillera BIMAAK-Europe) and MABIKAs Foundation-The Netherlands. In 2016, she self-published her book, Prose,Poetry & Miscellany. Yvonne is presently involved in the activities of ICBE and MABIKAs Foundation. She helps to post articles in the ICBE website: www.icbe.eu.