A few days ago, it was reported that a forest fire swept through the slopes of Mt. Pulag, damaging 643 hectares of grassland and pine forests, prompting the famous mountain’s closure.
Similar incidents have been reported in the past in various peaks around the country— including Mt. Pulag itself. And, while it does not appear to be the case in Mt. Pulag today, mountaineers have been implicated in these fires. In January 2018, a fire in Mt. Pulag damaged about six hectares of the precious grassland summit carpeted with dwarf bamboo. In 2016, a fire originating from Mt. Apo’s summit campsite began to ravage the mountain’s upper reaches, spreading in various fronts. That area is habitat for flora like the majestic tinikaran trees and fauna like the Philippine eagle, and home to indigenous peoples. The fire in our country’s highest mountain can only be described as a national tragedy.
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While fires are recognized by scientists as regular occurrences in the course of a forest’s life cycle in many parts of the world, the frequency and extent of these and other fires in recent years leave no doubt that they have become detrimental to the forest and its biodiversity. They also exact a human toll, with forest rangers, bantay gubat, and other volunteers having to do the firefighting themselves, risking their lives in the process. Lest we forget, two such volunteers, Alex Banilar and Wilfredo Baticon, died while responding to a forest fire in Bukidnon Provincial Tree Park in 2018.
Even if the climate crisis can be implicated as a predisposing factor, the human etiologies of these fires should also be problematized. Indeed, as the dry season reaches its zenith in the coming weeks, we must chart what can be done to prevent the forest fires from happening, how to control them more effectively, and how to protect people and the environment alike in case they do happen.
1. Law enforcements can play a vital role
While some fires are investigated, they rarely lead to the perpetrators being punished. Locals and visitors alike need to get the clear message that environmental rules must not be taken lightly, and hikers must have learned basic outdoor skills and principles before even setting foot on a mountain.
2. There should be more education efforts for hikers, tourists, and the local community
Visitors to national parks and other outdoor sides must be oriented about the Leave No Trace Principles that emphasize making as minimal an impact as possible on campsites and trails. They must also be “fire safety tips” which include identifying mountains at high risk of brush fires (for instance, the dry, grassy mountains in Zambales and Bataan) and avoiding them at the peak of the dry season. There are also online resources like this National Geographic reference that give hikers more guidance.
3. Forest governance and supervision must be strengthened
Despite their important work, there are too few rangers in our forests; many of them are underpaid and receive little material, financial, and legal support from the government. These guards—many of them from indigenous communities—have served as eyes and ears of the DENR where they are present - and they can deter illegal activities that lead to forest fires. They can also help initiate and coordinate responses before fires become uncontrollable, serving as the crucial first responders.
Revenue from national parks (e.g. registration fees from hikers that can run up to thousands in some destinations like Mt. Apo) can go toward supporting these badly-needed resources. This will also require political will on the part of our leaders, as well as cooperation from various sectors.
Even as they protect us from calamities and ecological disasters, our forests continue to be vulnerable to many other threats. Protecting our forests from destructive fires is an investment that we as a nation ought to pursue.