Firefighters battle the rowhome blaze in South Philly on Thursday, Dec. 19

The three-alarm fire that overtook a row of South Philadelphia homes near 8th and Reed streets Thursday morning was intense. So far, two people are presumed dead.

Thought to be sparked by a gas explosion, the fast-spreading fire has also trapped two people, caused a house to collapse, and brought out hundreds of firefighters to help quell the flames. Evacuated residents, some of them sobbing, were moved to SEPTA buses to keep warm. It’s unclear how bad the damage will be to the block, which is close to iconic shops like Termini Bros. Bakery and Cosmi’s Deli.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that the blaze isn’t an outlier. It’s the latest in a shockingly long list of bad fires that rage through the city — at least six this year alone.

Last year was no different. A 2018 junkyard fire in Kensington so big it was visible from a mile away attracted even more attention when the infamous Philly Elmo showed up. That happened  just a few months after arson destroyed an Old City block.

Why so many fires in Philly? Center City architect Tony Bracali with the Goldenberg Group cited a few factors: antiquated electrical systems, lack of general maintenance and the absence of sprinkler systems.

“Many older, low rise buildings had no need for them when they were originally constructed,” Bracali told Billy Penn last year.

The city is trying to get a handle on things. In November, the Fire Department opened four new engine companies to replace those that had closed in the last decade. Just last week, the Department of Licenses and Inspections jumped in, drafting more regulations to make sure fire escapes are safe.

Here’s a recap of the worst fires Philly saw in 2019.

People being evacuated from their South Philly homes on Dec. 19 Credit: Emma Lee / WHYY

June: Southwest Philly refinery fire

When the 150-year-old industrial complex along the Schuylkill River caught fire over the summer, it escalated to three alarms and shot terrifying flames into the sky. In the wee hours of the morning, neighbors were instructed to shelter in place until the Fire Department got the blaze under control.

And as the flames started to die down, the refinery drama was just beginning.

Turns out the whole thing was fueled by hydrofluoric acid — a dangerous chemical that could’ve killed millions of people. It raised questions about the safety of the site, which was promptly shut down. Hundreds of employees lost their jobs without severance pay or benefits.

August: Another junkyard fire

Though Philly Elmo didn’t show up to this one, a summer blaze struck Southwest Philly near the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market. A junkyard at 67th and Essington caught fire on a hot August evening around 7 p.m. It scorched 10 cars while firefighters struggled to get it under control.

Thankfully, this incident didn’t cause any known injuries.

September: the Unlike Agholor fire

Who knew that when a fire ripped through a West Philly apartment building — displacing 11 residents and forcing five people to be hospitalized — it wouldn’t be the actual blaze that caught nationwide attention?

An impromptu hero named Hakim Laws grabbed the spotlight. The former firefighter helped rescue children trapped in the burning building, catching them as they jumped from the window. After a disappointing Eagles loss to the Lions the day before, Laws took the opportunity to compare himself to a wide receiver who’d performed poorly.

Laws recounted the scene to CBS3: “My man just started throwing babies out … And we were catching them, unlike Agholor.”

The one-liner has since been dubbed “the absolute greatest quote in the history of Philadelphia.”

October: West Philly auto shop fire

When this three-alarm fire hit Cobbs Creek, the smoke billowed so heavily from the site that it forced the evacuation of two nearby public schools and a daycare at Tabernacle Lutheran Church.

Like so many big Philly fires, this one was preempted by a handful of serious fire code violations that went unaddressed. And it was almost miraculous that no one was injured. Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Adam Thiel said the blaze could have easily advanced to absorb the surrounding neighborhood.

“If it weren’t for our firefighters cutting out that fire before it spread, the fire could have gotten into the adjacent residencies and moved all the way down the block,” Thiel said.

December: chemical plant fire

Southwest Philly just can’t catch a break. The heavily industrial neighborhood had already been rocked this year by the refinery fire and a junkyard fire when a chemical plant was caught up in a blaze on Monday.

At the Kinder Morgan fuel facility at 63rd and Passyunk, this was another huge emergency narrowly avoided. The fire started at a cargo pump — which was directly next to an ethanol tank. Firefighters had to get within a few feet of the flames to shut off a valve and turn off the ethanol supply.

It took a few hours and about 100 firefights, but luckily the team brought it under control before anyone got hurt.

Now, the city’s monitoring the area for signs of poor air quality.

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...