The month of March signals the beginning of sun-drenched activities for many Filipinos. It is also the time when flowers bloom more beautifully and plants are at their greenest. The northern hemisphere, on the other hand, experiences springtime while the southern hemisphere, autumn.
March is also “Fire Prevention Month” in the Philippines — a timely response to the start of the hot and dry season, The Bureau of Fire Protection takes the lead in conducting information and safety awareness campaigns, aimed at suppressing all kinds of destructive fires while keeping the public safe against their potential impact. This year’s theme is “Ligtas na Pilipinas Ating Kamtin, Bawat Pamilya ay Sanayin, Kaalaman sa Sunog ay Palawakin.”
Fires can be deadly
There is a saying that, ‘’when there is smoke, there is fire,’’ a much common thought of many might just be true enough. By definition, fire is the rapid oxidation of a material during an exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. However, a fire, in its most common form can result in conflagration, which has the potential to cause physical damage through burning.
A fire needed adequate presence of Oxygen, (O2), this fuels it as it expands further. While it may not be rocket science to state that in making combustion successfully, one should know the mechanics in the making of fire, and there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Below is a study which exhibits the hazards of building fires, usually in urban areas:
A study by K. Sumi, Y. Tsuchiya, originally published 01 December 1971, stated that toxic gases and vapours produced during a fire are responsible for a large number of fire deaths. Products that generate these deadly fumes are caused by a toxic cocktail of products or materials found in unsuspecting dwellings or workplaces. These become highly volatile in several instances. Fire statistics also revealed that many deaths associated with building fires, again omitting those due to ignition of clothing, approximately account to about 50% are from combustion of products. This could be a lot higher in peculiar cases where it is found to be difficult to ascertain whether death has resulted directly either from burn injuries or toxic combustion products. It added that smoke and toxic gases and vapours almost instantaneously come together during fires, where combustion accelerates the burning process rather quickly. Evidently, smoke inhalation overcome victims resulting to disorientation, while no conceivable data pointing out that this alone, is responsible for the harmful effects to victims. In most cases, severe smoke inhalation results to death or permanent injury to the victim, though in some study indicate this possibility. There are conclusive medical analysis too, that if not remedied immediately, this can cause permanent damage to the brain. Smoke is a particulate matter consisting of very fine solid particles and condensed vapour. It constitutes most of the visible part of the products of combustion observed during a fire. Gas is a product of combustion that remains a gas even when cooled to normal building temperatures. Vapour is a product of combustion that is gas when produced but reverts to solid or liquid at normal temperatures. Vapours will gradually condense on cool surfaces as they migrate from the fire.
The report also identified the main danger of smoke – reduced visibility; where it emanates from toxic gases and vapours where it creates adverse effect on body functions. Smoke will often impede the escape of occupants from a burning building and result in prolongs exposure to the harmful effects of toxic products. Toxic gases and vapours can cause death if they are present in sufficient quantities and for a sufficient time. In certain cases, occupants become trapped as these deadly fumes act as irritants such as hydrogen chloride and ammonia which causes direct irritation of the respiratory tract and the eyes. Asphyxiation kills. Although irritants may serve as a warning to occupants, they too, can prevent victims from finding a suitable place of refuge or exit as reduced visibility from the raging smoke fill the space in between the walls, which traps them.
Here are some of the deadly mix of toxic fumes a victim can be subjected to during a severe fire: Carbon monoxide (CO), Carbon dioxide (CO2), Hydrogen cyanide (HCN), Hydrogen chloride (HCl), Nitrogen dioxide (N2O), just to name a few. These chemicals are dangerous if in the confined spaces where most of fires take place, and a majority of deaths result to. The report also highlighted the need for authorities to consider restrictions or regulations in the use of materials that produce large quantities of smoke and toxic gases. This has been adopted in many countries from around the world.
At the onset, there isn’t much information made available to the general public on how much dangerous it is when exposed in fires for a considerably prolonged time. The potential for chronic health problems associated from exposure to the components of smoke. Long term exposure to ambient air which contains minute particles, in several medical studies, although inconclusive in some cases, indicate that too much of an exposure to these elements can increase the hazards of having cardiovascular disease and mortality in populations living in metropolis where there is highest potential of ingesting air pollutants in the atmosphere. It is not only the victims of fire incidents that are having this threat to their health – most often than not, it is the firefighters themselves have greater exposure to life-threatening illnesses associated with smoke. In most severe of cases, medical examinations revealed that prolonged exposure to smoke increases the likelihood of contracting cancer, lung disease and cardiovascular disease. It’s deadlier than you think.
Firefighters are indeed, heroes by all means. They risk their very lives to save others. Globally, there are certain safety precautions set to save the lives of these heroes to begin with. Safety Regulations calls for firefighting forces to use appropriate respiratory protection to reduce exposure. Respirators have to be understood too, on how it should be properly utilized in lifesaving.
Weak El Nino underway
As of mid-February, a Weak El Nino is well underway in the Tropical Pacific, with relatively cooler sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in the Equatorial Pacific, this will bring below-average rainfall across the Philippines beginning this month of March, April and May, with a possible shift to Neutral Climate Conditions around July, August and September 2019. The Weak El Nino which is already underway between February and March now stands at (74-75% chance) of development. The International Research Institute (IRI) for Climate and Society, Earth Institute in Columbia University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) both have it at (55% chance); while the El Nino Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Alert at El Nino Advisory, and Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) stands at ENSO-Neutral, give or take, but with some warming trend seen already. The Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) in Tokyo, monitors the Weak El Nino at (60% chance), and is set to continue until Boreal Summer (June 2019). The state weather bureau Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) puts its warning at El Nino Advisory with its impacts already underway with varying implications, according to their latest release, and with United Nations’ sanctioned World Meteorological Organization (WMO) still at (75-80% chance) for Weak El Nino event. This will infuse more fuel in several locations around the country over the next couple of months during the hot dry season (March through late May). With this in mind, there is no doubt that water scarcity will be a major concern, especially in non-irrigated areas, where the farming populace rely solely on rainfall which could be more and more scarce in the days ahead. Already, several water utilities as early as February, have aired announcements for their water consumers to practice water conservation measures until the rains come by June on the earnest.
Last year’s numbers
According to the BFP, there had been 14,316 fires which occurred from period 01 January to 27 December 2018, of which 3,943 fires were reported to have hit in Metropolitan Manila alone. This is about .84% higher that of the same period in 2017, which account to 25.25% spike from the same year. The total number of deaths associated with fires in the Philippines in 2018 topped a staggering loss of 222 individuals, where most of cases of these fatalities are linked to structural fires composed of commercial or residential building infernos. This is why fires have to be treated with the highest of emergencies.
Apparently, we are but powerless to these elements, but we can prepare adequately, make the necessary actions before it hits our most vulnerable communities. Being an archipelagic region known for having vagaries in weather, even the most innocent-looking weather system could inflict such damage to our community and cost us our lives and even our loved ones. With this, we should all be ready not just with our rain gear, but with the mindset that now is the time to be more wary of possible sudden changes in the weather be it cold or warm, having typhoon or not. This will enable us to maximize knowledge and moving forward, building a #WeatherWiser nation we all aim to achieve.
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–By Adonis S. Manzan
Typhoon Specialist, WeatherPhilippines Foundation, Inc.
06 March 2019