Last Sunday, a worker painting the basement of Holiday Inn Manila decided to take a cigarette break. When he lit up, the fumes he ignited caused a fire that sent four people to hospital and damaged the hotel's escalator. The blaze lasted only 15 minutes and didn't spread to other buildings, but it was still significant because it took place on March 1 - the start of Fire Prevention Month. By now, Filipinos know this can only mean one thing - a rash of conflagrations in coming weeks that will have nothing to do with arsonists or terrorists. Years of observing Fire Prevention Month have shown that what the country honours is the 'fire', not the 'prevention'. But there's a deeper problem - the biggest cause of fatal fires is corruption. Seven years ago, the country's worst fire killed 162 people, most of them students celebrating their coming graduation. The Ozone Disco blaze, which took place in, yes, the middle of Fire Prevention Month, was caused by an electrical explosion. In the ensuing inferno, victims were burned, suffocated or trampled to death. Many of the 250 survivors were horribly disfigured. The disco, which seated 50 but had accepted more than 400 guests, had no working fire exit. The fire extinguishers the waiters tried using were defective. House detectives had standing orders to let no one out during a commotion. Investigators said the club had been operating with a fraudulently obtained certificate. They charged not only the owners with violating the building code but also the city engineer's office and bureau of fire protection for helping the disco management break the law. After more than three years, the court threw out the charge that city officials and the disco managers had conspired to violate the law. It then sentenced two of the club's owners to four years in jail and fined four other owners for 'reckless imprudence'. The city officials were not penalised, and as the case is under appeal, the convicted owners are out on bail. Five years later, a fire in a hotel a few kilometres from the ill-fated disco killed 75 people under similar circumstances. Faulty wiring set off an early-morning blaze which trapped scores of hotel guests. The six-storey building had only two fire exits - both blocked - and no smoke detectors. The fire hose cabinet had no hose. Victims who tried to jump from balconies found bars welded across the windows, and many died clutching the grilles in front of helpless firefighters. The owner went into hiding and later emerged proclaiming his innocence. Although charged with reckless imprudence, he is still a free man and the worst he can expect is a six-year jail term. Meanwhile, the city government, suspected of having winked at the hotel owner's violations, has given him a special permit to convert the hotel to a mortuary.