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’m home for summer vacation. My parents are also at home. Maureen, my younger sister, is enrolled in summer classes and Fe, the youngest, is attending a religious summer camp in the Visayas. In our family of five, we’re only three at home.
It’s 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 are 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 this town - from 3rd through sixth 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 the 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 out 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 hear people shouting, Pu-or! Pu-or! (Fire! Fire!) I run to the front window of our living room, the window facing the main road and market. When I look outside, people are running to the south of town. I look to my left and see smoke billowing from the Cawed’s residence, which is about 10 houses away from our house. I go down to the pavement in front of our house. My father and mother join me.
I ask someone, “Kasatno nga nagrugi didiay apoy?” (How did the fire start?)
Someone replies, “Adda kano aglutluto idi kwan ket napu-uran didiay kusina.” (Someone was cooking and the kitchen got burned.)
It’s as vague as that. I’m unable to get the exact details.
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 Carino-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 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 that was about a meter high, 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 goes to the Cawed house. Later, he comes back and says, “Adayo pay.” (It’s still far away.)
We do nothing. We go back to what we’re doing at home.
But from the Cawed’s residence, the fire jumps across the street on the same block and eats the houses there. The fire also jumps to the end of the block where our house is located. The fire eats the stores of Mr. Tio and Bontoc Lumber and Hardware Co., and house of the Acofos. The fire is approaching our house.
“Anya ngay ti aramiden tayo?” (What are we going to do?), I ask my mother.
“I-pack tayon ah amin nga mabalin tayo nga maala.” (Let’s pack all that we could get.)
My father comes running to our house as soon as he sees other houses near ours being burned.
The fire is approaching. At this point, we begin 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 book case. 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 are spoken. There’s no time to cry. There’s only time to pack. We just keep on packing all the things we could. Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! This is what we’re all thinking. We have two or three suitcases to put our belongings. These are not enough so we use boxes. I can’t even recall where we got these boxes. We also used blankets and bed sheets to put our things.
I go to our bedroom and pack our clothes, mattresses, pillows, linens and other things. My mother goes to their bedroom and packs their things in the closet---clothes, curtains, linens and so on.
I go to my parent’s room and see about 50 issues of National Geographic magazines. Shall I get these or not? I ask myself. I end up packing them. I also include 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 see the mountain. There was a window on the north side and when you opened it, you also see 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 put 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 is approaching. My father and mother carry our dining table and bring it down the pavement in front of our house. They also bring down the four beds and mattresses; they bring down the rattan sofa set and its cushions. We bring down the two Singer sewing machines. One is with a foot pedal and must have weighed 10 kilos. The other is a much lighter portable sewing machine with its own table and could be detached.
I ask my father, “Where do we bring our things?”
“To Bontoc Central School.”
We go to the school and place our things in one room, we return to our house; we go to the school and place our things in the same room and return to our house. Forth and back, forth and back---this goes on for an hour or so.
Later, Uncle Law-ed, my mother’s cousin from Samoki and Uncle Fokleg, her cousin from Chakchakan, arrive. They carry the rattan sala set, dining table and chairs; five beds, sewing machines and its table.
We are able to bring out many things before the fire reaches our house. Lucky for us, I would say now.
The fire eats our house. It’s burned to the ground. Ashes, only ashes. All black. There’s nothing to do now but go to the school.
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 is already setting when we finish bringing our things to the school.
We stay in one room with all our things crammed in the place. We go to sleep. We’re very tired. We recall the events of that afternoon. How were we able to carry those things from the house to the school?
Come of 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, there’s a knock on our door. I open it and see a woman wearing a tapis (woven skirt) with a labba (container made of woven rattan) on her head. She requests for a container and when she puts down the labba, she measures about five cans of rice and puts it in the container.
She says, “Siya na yangkhay nan ma-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 might have been other Bontoc residents who helped us and my story is a way of acknowledging them.
A week or two after the fire, our parents build a small one-story house on our lot. We bring back the things we brought out from the old house. Our things are still intact but placed in a different setting.
And so the word “fire” that might have been a subject of private conversation among the Bontoc residents becomes a reality. A part of Bontoc Poblacion disappears 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 where the “loans” of people were listed.
In April 2014, I shared my story with my sisters and requested for 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 these 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 firefighting truck so everything was by hose and “pasa-pasa timba-timba” (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.”YB
About the Author
YVONNE KAY-AN BELEN is a Bontok Igorot from Alab, Bontoc, Mountain Province, Philippines. Presently residing in Amersfoort, The Netherlands and past the retirement age of 65, she devotes her time to writing and helping post articles in the ICBE website: www.icbe.eu.