DENR places bushfire damages cost at P20-M

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) regional office in Bicol  has placed at Php 20 million the cost of damages inflicted on timberlands and forested agricultural areas in the region by the recent series of wildfires.

Some 2,518 hectares were affected by conflagrations that hit at least 12 areas in Albay, Camarines Sur and Sorsogon last month, or days after typhoon "Glenda" hit most parts of the region, Gilbert Gonzales, the DENR regional executive director, on Tuesday said.

The first fire was in Rapu-Rapu in Albay that started on August 1 and destroyed some 3,100 hectares of forested areas and threatened the densely populated downtown area of the island-town before it was put out five days later by the rain and water drop operations initiated by the Philippine Air Force (PAF) using bucket-carrying helicopters.

On August 4, the Albay Public Safety and Emergency Management Office (Apsemo) reported five separate but simultaneous forest and bush fire incidents—one in Cagraray Island of Bacacay town; another one at the Mayon Volcano Natural Park within the municipality of Sto. Domingo; Cayaban Mountain, Manito; Barangay Putan, Tiwi; and Barangay Guadalupe, Rapu-Rapu.

On August 7, a bush fire, triggered by the burning of garbage by villagers, destroyed a considerable area of grassland in Barangay Balading, Malinao, Albay, the Apsemo said.

On August 8, a fire also broke out at the forest of Mt. Isarog National Park along the municipalities of Calabanga and Tinambac in the province of Camarines Sur.

It destroyed around 150 hectares of woodland within the government protected park.

As fires raged in those areas, similar incidents were also reported in Sorsogon City and its nearby town of Casiguran that destroyed a total of about 100 hectares of cogonal areas, coconut plantations and root crop farms.

The Casiguran fire took place for three days in Barangay Inlagadian, which is situated near the foot of Mt. Bulusan, following the Sorsogon City incident that engulfed for five days a forested site covered by the Bacon-Manito geothermal energy reservation in barangays Osiao and Sto. Nino, both in Bacon District.

The Casiguran Municipal Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council also reported that two more bush fires took place at the vast mountainous areas of barangays Sta. Cruz and San Pascual, destroying farms of agrarian reform beneficiaries.

Gonzales said the most substantial damage was sustained by Rapu-Rapu, estimated at Php 11.5 million, and followed by the Cagraray Island forest fire placed at Php 7.4 million.

“We, along with the regional office of the BFP forming a joint technical working group after assessing the ground damage, are now drafting a comprehensive rehabilitation plan for the affected areas,” he said.

Measures toward the prevention of similar incidents like the strict enforcement of some provisions of the law that prohibit “kaingin” system (slash and burn) of farming that is suspected to be the primary cause of forest fires are also being put in place, according to Gonzales.

“We are also now rushing up the formation of the Regional Forest Fire Respondent Teams that will be composed of special units called Leatherbacks from DENR field offices, BFP personnel and volunteers to be tasked to conduct round-the-clock monitoring and initiate quick response in case forest fire incidents occur in their respective areas of responsibility.

These teams that will serve as forest fire prevention and management vanguards will undergo intensive training on the purpose and placed on standby near areas of the region that are vulnerable to forest conflagrations.

To identify these areas, DENR is now preparing thematic maps and profile of timberlands and protected areas in the region which will serve as guide in the posting of the teams.

The maps will include trails and access roads, location of water sources and forest ranger stations.

Bicol has a total of 543,000 hectares of forest land, out of which only 155,689 hectares have remained forested as of 2011.

Of these forested areas, 86,931 hectares are in the province of Camarines Norte and 68,758 hectares, in Catanduanes.

Camarines Norte plays host to the Bicol National Park, a 5,700-hectare government-protected area which is considered one of the region’s remaining yet rapidly deteriorating natural forests even as it is among Bicol’s natural heritage sites for its endemic tree and wildlife species, pristine rivers and other ecological wonders.

In Catanduanes, the substantial forests which remain are all lowland dipterocarp in type and are the largest remaining forest block in the whole of Bicol.

The island-province is also the site of Catanduanes Watershed Forest Reserve that covers 26,010 hectares and now being proposed as a natural park with an expanded protected area of 49,000 hectares.

The DENR-BFP anti-forest fire undertakings, Gonzales said, “represent a pro-active stance in forest fire prevention for the reason that we are venturing into the most important investment the government has undertaken—the National Greening Program (NGP).” --By Danny O. Calleja (PNA)

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