By David Haldane
Aug. 22, 2019
The end of the world began with a burp.
It was 8 a.m. when I was awakened by the sound of the air conditioner belching air. Struggling with the first itching of wakefulness, I rolled out of bed, walked to the veranda and couldn’t help but notice the large crackling fire raging within yards of where I stood.
The surge of adrenaline that followed wasn’t, in fact, even the strongest I’ve ever experienced. That would be the time, years ago, that a bipolar girlfriend offended by my snoring poured a bucket of cold water over my head forcing a rather immediate and jolting burst into consciousness. But the wall-licking brush fire, I must say, qualified as a very close second.
The only reason it didn’t win the gold, I believe, was due to the oddly relaxed attitudes of the dozen-or-so construction workers who had paused from the task of building our house just long enough to, apparently, enjoy the spectacle.
“Hey, is this real?” I asked one of them, who responded with a shrug. “I mean, is it natural or controlled?” Another shrug.
“Has anyone called the fire department?” I finally wanted to know.
“Hmmm, maybe,” he said, seeming a bit annoyed at the question.
Reflecting on it later, it occurred to me that what I might have been witnessing was a classic display of bahala na, the well-documented Filipino attitude of fatalism that, roughly translated, means “whatever happens, happens.”
That’s not always a bad thing, mind you. In fact, it’s one of the characteristics I love about Filipino culture; the calm acceptance of life’s circumstances that are beyond our purview. With a potentially devastating fire lapping at my gate, on the other hand, well, my obnoxious native Americanism instinctively took control.
Cell signals are elusive at our house. And, being the foreigner that I am, even if I had one, I’m not sure that under these circumstances I’d know exactly what to do with it. Fortunately, though – in this case, I’d say, providentially – we live right next door to a coastal watch station manned 24/7 by Philippine Navy Coast Guard personnel. And they, as it happens, are equipped with – wait for it – complete regional and national communications capabilities including radar, radio, satellite and, yes, cell phone.
There’s even a story floating around that someone purporting to be from the National People’s Army, a Communist rebel group with a local presence, once knocked on their door threatening to blow up the facility’s huge communications tower unless cash was immediately forthcoming. Within minutes, the story goes, the place was surrounded by armed soldiers who, after escorting the unfortunate would-be extortionist off to jail, set up a permanent and enduring neighborhood presence of their own. So, yeah, if I have to get hold of someone fast, the next-door neighbors are my go-to guys.
“Hey,” I called over the fence opposite the one being rapidly approached by flames, “have you boys seen this; could you please make a call?” Several of them interrupted their texting long enough to take a gander at the conflagration, the presence of which they apparently had not previously been made aware. Then one of them rushed inside.
The rest is fairly easy to tell; the fire department arrived within twenty minutes and, after some traipsing over the hills behind and around us, extinguished the blaze. And, as so often happens, luck pitched in to help, in this case by shifting the wind’s direction to blow the fire south up the hill instead of east toward our place. When the smoke finally cleared, it was obvious that that hadn’t happened a moment too soon; the flames had come within three meters of our home.
So, aside from an unusually exciting morning and great cocktail party fare, what are the main takeaways? The way I see it, there are two: first, get a weedwhacker to clear a swath around your property. Finally, and most importantly, never assume that someone else will call the fire department when it’s your house that’s on fire.
(David Haldane, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster who recently moved to Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their eight-year-old son. This column tells the unfolding story of that adventure.)