About 500 handcuffed female prisoners were evacuated from Manila City Jail and moved on a temporary basis to a nearby chapel, as towering flames from the burning homes licked the jail’s exterior walls, said national prison bureau official Superintendent Carolina Borrinaga.
It was the second blaze to sweep through the capital’s shantytowns in as many weeks.
“That was a close call. Thankfully, the firemen arrived before the fire could hit the prison,” Borrinaga told AFP, adding the inmates would return to their cells once the fire was under control.
Friday’s fire razed at least 500 tin-roofed huts in the depressed central Manila district of Quiapo, leaving up to 5,000 people homeless in a community sandwiched between decrepit buildings and elevated train lines, said national fire bureau spokesman Renato Marcial.
Several firefighters fainted from the intense smoke and heat, he said, but no residents were reported hurt.
Desperate locals, armed with buckets of water, tried to douse the flames and firefighters manoeuvred their hoses through a maze of narrow alleys.
Residents fled, clutching bundles of clothes, television sets and furniture.
A column of black smoke could be seen above Manila’s old quarter as dozens of fire trucks crammed into the area, snarling traffic.
The fire also set off cooking gas tanks, causing loud explosions.
“It’s a busy time for people with Christmas approaching. They’re firing up their stoves and turning on their lights,” Marcial told AFP when asked about the possible cause of the mid-morning blaze that lasted several hours.
An inferno razed about 800 homes in a shantytown in the district of Mandaluyong on November 26, forcing thousands to abandon their homes and seek shelter in a public park, a gym and a school while authorities looked for emergency housing.
Fires, often blamed on faulty electrical wiring, are common hazards in the country’s most populous city, where millions live in hovels made of scrap wood, cardboard and scavenged materials.
Lax enforcement of safety regulations have also been blamed for the country’s worst fires.
In May, 72 people died when a fire tore through a footwear factory in Manila’s rundown district of Valenzuela, with survivors blaming the disaster on barred windows and poor fire safety standards.