ENVIRONMENT authorities are eyeing to declare Mount Apo “off-limits” to mountain climbers, after it caught fire on March 26.
According to initial estimates, around 350 hectares of the forest has been razed by the fire. Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) officials fear that the damage could get worse if the fire continues to spread, the damage of which is expected to leave behind an ugly scar to one of Mindanao’s most treasured sacred mountains.
Irresponsible mountain climbers who left their campfire unattended are being blamed for the fire, prompting the DENR to revisit the policy of allowing inexperienced nature trippers to join mountain climbers in their adventures.
Mount Apo, which sits at the heart of the Mount Apo Natural Park (MANP), is one of the most popular climb sites in the Philippines, it being the country’s highest peak that is thickly covered with natural forests teeming with wildlife. Even before the fire, protectors of Mount Apo have experienced a serious problem brought by tourists. Tons of garbage were left behind by climbers who irresponsibly discard their waste along the trails.
Since the fire broke out on Saturday, firefighters and volunteers from various parts of the Davao region have rushed to affected areas to help forest rangers contain the fire.
Portions of Mount Apo, however, are still on fire as of Thursday. Fire is pushing toward the Santa Cruz area in Davao del Sur.
The MANP straddles Davao City, Digos City, Santa Cruz and Bansalan in the province of Davao del Sur, and Kidapawan City, Makilala and Magpet in North Cotabato.
Serious forest-protection issue
Mount Apo is a key biodiversity area. It is one of the eight Asean Heritage Parks in the Philippines, which represent “the best of the best” protected areas in Southeast Asia. The Philippines has 240 protected areas covering about 5 million hectares of terrestrial and marine areas nationwide.
While over the past five years, the government had succeeded in expanding the country’s forest cover by 1.2 million to a total of 8 million hectares as of December 2015, courtesy of the National Greening Program (NGP), some questions linger:Is the country capable of protecting its forest against human threats? More specifically, is it prepared to protect the forests against disastrous forest fires?
Protected areas are being promoted for ecotourism by the DENR. On Thursday Davao DENR Regional Director Joselin Fragada called an emergency meeting among members of the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) of the MANP to discuss plans on closing Mount Apo to campers.
The emergency meeting was called upon the directive of Environment Secretary Ramon J.P. Paje, who is mulling over the option to declare the MANP off -limits to human activities, particularly mountain climbing, to prevent a repeat of the incident, and to allow Mount Apo to recover from the damage.
Paje wants to put in place measures that will make mountain climbers and campers more responsible and disciplined before being allowed to explore the country’s protected areas.
“They [mountain climbers] need to undergo training before being allowed to climb a mountain. Most of those who climb the mountain do not know how to behave. Many are irresponsible and undisciplined,” he said
Paje noted that some of the forest fires that occurred in the past were also triggered by mountain climbers or nature trippers. This includes the fire that caught Mount Banahaw in Luzon in 2014. Forest fires are often caused by human activities.
The PAMB is composed of national and local government officials and representatives of various stakeholders, including private sector, academe and representatives from community-based organizations within a protected area.
Apparently, protectors of Mount Apo were caught unprepared. The fire that broke out from one of the camp sites quickly spread out in just a few hours, immediately affecting 100 hectares of closed canopy forest by Monday morning. As the fire broke out, rescuers focused on evacuating close to 1,000 climbers who were camped around its peak to safer grounds, according to Eduardo Ragaza, the acting protected area superintendent of the MANP.
By the time all the mountain climbers were brought down to safety, the fire is already uncontrollable. With no firefighting equipment—except for bolos and pickax—firefighters and volunteers rushed to create fire lines but the thick smoke made the job difficult, even with the help of a helicopter water bucket deployed by authorities in the area.
“The smoke is too much. It is difficult to conduct even aerial surveillance to identify the affected areas and which areas we need to go first,” he said.
Manpower, equipment shortage
On Thursday Harry Camoro, Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction Management Council head of the province of Davao del Sur, said the erratic wind at the peak of Mount Apo and the brutal terrain made it difficult for firefighters to create fire lines.
With bolos and pickax, around 150 firefighters and volunteers rushed to Santa Cruz area to clear at least 10 meters of the forest, cutting and removing trees, shrubs and grass across the portion of the forest, to which the fire is spreading to.
According to Director Ricardo Calderon of the DENR’s Forest Management Bureau (FMB), there are only 2,014 forest rangers all over the country to protect the forests against various threats, including forest fires.
The country has about 15 million hectares of forest, but there is only one forest ranger to take care of 7,000 hectares of forest.
“For every forest ranger assigned to do other task would mean 7,000 hectares of forest will be left unprotected,” he said.
The DENR is in the process of hiring more forest rangers, targeting an additional 2,000 within the year as part of the five-year National Forest Protection Program which started in 2013.
Rangers as firefighters
According to Calderon, the P500-million-budgeted program started training forest rangers. “This include forest-fire prevention,” he said. “Forest rangers were given basic training on how to deal with forest fires. What to do in case fire breaks out, where to create fire lines based on wind direction, and how to protect themselves during fires,” he said.
Communities are, likewise, informed of the dangers of forest fires, Calderon added.
Not a DENR mandate
While forest protection falls within the mandate of the DENR-FMB, firefighting in forests is not within its mandate. Firefighting falls within the mandate of the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), an attached agency of the Department of the Interior and Local Government. As such, Calderon said the DENR’s FMB is not allowed by law to purchase firefighting equipment.
“Only the [BFP] is allowed to purchase firefighting equipment,” he said. “Otherwise, we will have a problem with the COA [Commission on Audit],” he said.
Calderon said during his stint as regional director of the DENR for Central Luzon in 2011, he was able to facilitate the purchase of backpack water sprinklers or sprayers for the training of forest rangers in forest-fire protection. The equipment are normally used by farmers to spray pesticides in farms, including commercial and industrial-tree plantations. But the purchase, he said, is limited to a few units.
To effectively fight forest fire, forest rangers and those at the front lines, including the DENR’s partners in forest protection, the Bantay Gubat need to be equipped with firefighting equipment, such as fire swat, which is effective in extinguishing grassfires, backpack water sprinklers, and for big forest fires, a helicopter water bucket.
Not a BFP priority
Unfortunately, fighting forest fire is not among the BFP’s top priority. The BFP, which is mandated to protect lives and properties against deadly fire, is not into buying firefighting equipment for forest fires.
“Our training and equipment are focused on dealing with structural fires [in urban and commercial areas], not for forest fires,” Senior Supt. Joselito Cortez of the BFP’s Directorate for Operation, told the BusinessMirror. He said the BFP purchases are for structural fires, such as firetrucks and fire hoses and nozzles.
The BFP, he added, do not have a unit dedicated to fighting forest fire. According to Cortez, the BFP has special rescue units, which the BFP can send out during forest fires, but he said, actual firefighting in the vast forest is not one of those areas the country’s firefighters are prepared for.
“We only coordinate with other agencies during such disasters,” he said, referring to local government units [LGUs], which is in charge of disaster risk reduction and management-plan implementation on the ground. Forest fires can last for days, months or even weeks and months as long as there are materials left to burn. This, he said, makes forest fire more dangerous to deal with, underscoring the need to focus on educating the people as a fire-prevention measure.
Forest fires are destructive and deadly, Calderon said. “In just a few minutes, forest fires can destroy an entire forest, especially during summer and El Niño. Anybody, with no experience in fighting forest fires, can be killed by the smoke alone when trapped in a burning forest,” he said.
Forest fires, he said, are usually caused by humans—slash-and-burn farming, unattended bonfires or camp fires, open burning of agricultural waste, or even a lit cigarette butt tossed by a smoker can cause forest fires, Calderon said.
He said fires that start from the peak is expected to spread slower than those start at the foot or middle of the mountain.
“Fire spreads faster during summer because of the dry grass, leaves and branches,” he said.
“Once fire broke out, you could not stop it,” Calderon said.
He said the best thing firefighters can do is to contain the fire by creating fire lines to prevent it from spreading and affecting other areas. Prevention, according to Calderon, is the only way to keep forests safe from deadly and destructive fire.
Serious threat to biodiversity
Director Theresa Mundita Lim of the DENR’s BMB said forest fire is a serious threat to the country’s protected areas.
Citing University of the Philippines College professor Dr. Edwin Fernando’s estimates, Lim said around 70 percent of the country’s natural forests are in the country’s protected areas.
“Thus, for forest fires to hit our forests within protected areas, it must be taken very seriously. First, forest fires in rain forests are indications of fragmentation. Open areas allow patches to dry up and become easily ignited by heat [particularly during the hot summer months], and this can spread quickly to surrounding areas that are still regenerating,” she said.
Lim said the heat from fire and the smoke suffocates the unique plants and animals that cannot immediately move away.
“Some species are adapted to specific elevations and conditions, and are endemic to the mountains, meaning they could be wiped out and become extinct. The opportunity to discover potential value of some of these species, say, for pharmacology or industrial use, disappears with them,” she warned.
“We need to focus our limited resources to protect forests that have been identified as biodiversity-rich. Then leverage this national government investment [for protection], to mobilize additional stakeholder and partner support for enforcement and awareness raising, as well as for sustainable, biodiversity-friendly livelihoods for communities who can help protect the forests against possible sources of fire,” she added. Lim said the Mount Apo incident should serve as an eye opener to all PAMBs nationwide.
Mount Apo is home to two nesting pairs of the critically endangered Philippine Eagle, the country’s national symbol, and is one of the 240 protected areas that needed to be protected and conserved. Supporting the decision to close all Mount Apo’s 11 mountain trails to allow the forest’s natural flora and fauna to regenerate naturally, Lim said a plan for a more sustainable, responsible tourism in the area must also be developed.
She said training for communities to be tour guides, who must also be responsible for ensuring that visitors will abide by the rules and regulations of the protected areas, must be observed.
Rehabilitating Mount Apo
Calderon said rehabilitating Mount Apo’s affected areas would take time. He noted that the forest fire might even leave an ugly scar at Mount Apo that will take years to restore. “We will need to consult experts on this to help us plan the rehabilitation,” he said.
He said the DENR-FMB will immediately make a postdamage assessment once the fire is put out, and to come up with a plan to restore the beauty of Mount Apo.
Image credits: DENR Strategic Communication and Initiatives Service