• Forest fire hits ‘sacred’ Mount Banahaw


    A FOREST fire that started on Wednesday atop a Philippine mountain has threatened endangered species plants and animals in an area also considered by some local sects as a holy place, officials said.

    The government’s National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management
    Council said about a 10-hectare (24.7-acre) patch of forest near the summit had been destroyed as of early Thursday.

    In an advisory it also warned the fire near the summit of Mount Banahaw was still spreading.

    Firefighters have still not reached the blaze some 18 hours after it was first observed, said municipal disaster official Elmer Bustamante.

    “The area is too steep,” he said by telephone from the town of Sariaya at the base of the mountain, about 95 kilometers (59 miles) south of Manila.

    Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) officials in the region are surveying the fire aboard military aircraft to check the extent of the damage and see how best to put it under control, Bustamante added.

    The cause of the fire is unknown, he said.

    Backpackers have been banned from the 2,158-meter (-foot) peak since 2004 to protect its biodiversity.

    Several small sects that worship at caves and springs on its lower slopes continue to have access there, though officials said there have been no reports of anyone being trapped in the fire.

    Wildlife officials of the environment department said Banahaw’s forests, including a 10,900-hectare protected zone, are home to scores of animal species found only in the Philippines, including a species of cloud rat discovered only in 2004.

    However, they said they have yet to receive a report of the extent of the damage.

    Ivan Herzano, project officer of the non-government group Foundation for the Philippine Environment, said that despite access restrictions, forest rangers lacked the capability to track all persons who may be illegally entering the protected area.

    “Most likely it was a man-made fire,” Herzano said.

    He added that hunters illegally looking for game could have lit dry litter on the forest floor by carelessly discarding cigarette butts.

    The foundation has recently completed a 60-hectare reforestation project on the mountain, which has protected zones that are off limits to human habitation as well as “multiple-use zones” on its lower slopes reserved for locals, Herzano added.

    In a press briefing at the Audio Visual Room of the Quezon Convention Center, DENR Region 4 Director Reynulfo Juan said the fire is most likely caused by man although they are now investigating all possibilities of the incident.

    Protected Area Superintendent Sally Pangan said they are narrowing the inquiry to the three groups whose application to climb the mountain was rejected due to the closure moratorium implemented for the mountain.

    Members of the 740 Combat Group of the Philippine Air Force initially reported to the Southern Luzon Command that a “forest fire occurred at around 7 p.m. at the vicinity of Durungawan tri-boundaries of Lucban, Tayabas and Candelaria, Quezon. Said fires allegedly stemmed from candles of religious persons having their worship ceremony.”

    Pangan and Juan said everyone going down from all entry and exit points will be questioned to pinpoint exactly the cause of the fire. They said application for permit to climb is now suspended while the investigation in ongoing.

    Juan said that they have yet to determine if the burned area would cause landslide because it has not recorded any soil erosion in the past.

    AFP With reports from Belly M. Ortodoz


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