Fire is a natural element known to man for eons of time, and it has shaped the future of mankind for generations. It is defined as a rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. Fire has useful properties if handled with care, but when something gets terribly wrong, apparently, this gift to mankind can be ruthless, and unforgiving in so many circumstances throughout history which could result to reducing the natural forests into charred debris of burning wood and a landscape of desolation and sea of ash and death.
This destructive nature of fire at some extent resulted to great loss of natural vegetation essential to man and the whole animal kingdom. There are also beneficial outcomes of wildfires, where most commonly lit by natural sources like lightning, with a very small occurrence as compared to that of human-induced fires due to a number of reasons.
Time and again, there are three (3) known elements that are required for a forest fire to burn. These are Heat, Oxygen, and Fuel, so-called, ‘’fire triangle’’. The abundance of these three major factors give added power to the burning capacity of fire, further escalating into an uncontrollable ‘’wildfire’’ as we know it. Wildfires are among the most devastating forms of fire that lasts for weeks and months on end, and just recently, it struck the heartland of the West coast of the United States – in California, where vast tracts of land and mountainous regions turned grey in the wake of the massive forest fires that has engulfed the region. Deaths have been recorded to about 700, mostly from Southern California early November of this year alone, with a record total of about 8,434 separate fires burning an area of 1,890,438 acres (765,033 ha) – the most destructive wildfire season, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Unconfirmed reports also point to accidental ‘’camp fire’’ incidence, and or arson activity in the area, some of it caused by natural causes like lightning strike.
Other Kinds of Forest Fires
There are several components that support a forest fires to continue burning. First, it enters the combustion stage, where three types of classifications are determined. These are: Smoldering fire, where one emits smoke but no apparent flame, and is likely short-lived. A fire can be considered a flaming combustion where flames are present and can be seen by the naked eye. Another product of a burning wood material is charcoal. It is formed in the absence of oxygen, which is one vital requirement of a self-sustaining fire. Another one is glowing combustion, or at a later or advanced stage of burning. It is commonly characterized by a slower rate of combustion and blue flame. Other forest fires are also classified by what part of the forest they burn in, and this is according to Borealforest.org in their website, which states that:
Ground fires occur on the ground, often below the leaves;
Surface fires occur on the surface of the forest floor of up to 1.3 m in height;
Crown fires are the most dangerous fires, which can spread very fast. They occur in the tops of the trees, often (a) dependent upon the surface fires to burn the crowns, (b) active in which they occur at the same rate as the surface fires, or (c) the most destructive, independent, where fire can ‘’jump’’ from crown to crown.
According to the publication, it is not uncommon for two or three types of fires to occur simultaneously.
The tinder dry conditions could not have come in the worst possible time in California’s history, as more than 30% of the state emerged from drought conditions in 2016, and about 40% remained under severe to extreme or up to exceptional drought levels as the region suffered a long back-to-back drought over a few year period. This has been exacerbated by a steady decline of ice deposits in the upper regions of North America, which accounts to lack of rainfall for an extended period which eventually resulted to loss of water in the adversely-affected Western United States. California’s severe drought in 2016 alone has decimated about 102 million trees, this happened in 2015, during the lowest snowpack deposit in half a century.
California has suffered a great deal of drought over a four-year period between 2011 and 2015, considered as the ‘’driest’’ since record keeping began in 1895. A developing Weak El Nino this year which, according to the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Earth Institute in Columbia University, is forecast to reach its maximum at 85% chance this December, with a gradual weakening sometime May of 2019, could eventually add more insult to the injury as below-average rainfall is seen to continue well into the first quarter of 2019.
To date, we haven’t been able to gather viable data as to its correlation to the Philippines, but the negative impacts we have been seeing overtime is just the tip of the iceberg as severe temperatures during the hot, dry season threaten our food security and vastly, the agriculture sector which generally bore the brunt of drought conditions, and occasional pestilence that follows during an El Nino episode.
Wildfires in the Philippines
Historically, in the Philippines, little has been known about the frequency of fires that rage uncontrollably in the far reaches of some of the most inaccessible mountainous regions during the hot, dry months of March through early May of every year. The most common are ‘’grass’’ fires, which usually set off by incredibly warm and dry days, coupled with very dry shrubs that lay free around mountain slopes or near fire sources – cigarette buts indiscriminately strewn by bystanders or passing motorists along the highways.
At the time, the country was experiencing one of the most intense El Nino episode on record, along with other tropical regions in the Northern and Southern Hemisphere. This has resulted into a serious drought situation in Mindanao, where below-average rainfall has beset the region, and has turned dry rivers and depleted the usual supply of passing rain bearing clouds that should have brought ample showers around the area. The supposedly wet months of December through January has failed, thus the steady decline of moisture in the region. This has brought tinder dry conditions to the already fire hazard environment in and around Cotabato and Davao Del Sur provinces.
The most recent incident of wildfire struck during the hot and humid days of March 2016. Specifically, on that fateful 26th day of March 2016, a camp fire setup by local tourists and campers alike up in the mountains was reported to have gone bad, left the burning wood unattended which resulted to a spreading blaze that engulfed the hard-to-reach areas right around Mt. Apo – a hidden gem and a national park reserve for several endangered species of flora and fauna, and the tallest peak in the country, measuring at an elevation of 2,954 m above sea level. The locals there knew that Mt. Apo have had sulfur deposits, since it was considered one of several active volcanoes in the country.
The inferno lasted for weeks well into April, with about 115 ha of lush forest were burnt to the ground, and no one was charged two years on. The firefighting efforts have been massive as authorities at the time, when they were able to capitalize on favorable weather conditions, creating fire lines or firebreaks, effectively preventing the blaze from spreading. Eventually, mother nature have had the upper hand when it comes to these kinds of situation. Early May, when the highly precipitable tropical waters to the East of Mindanao and the shifting winds have eventually let loose rain-bearing clouds up into the mountains around Mt. Apo, relieving the parched lands which gave the joint efforts of man and nature to suppress the flames. For months, the mountain was off-limits to trekkers and mountaineers to allow it naturally regenerate and promote growth after the disastrous inferno that gutted the natural park.
After the Inferno
We can literally state that fires have been an integral part of the forest’s natural healthy life cycle, but the apparently constant fires that occurs year on year might as well damage that natural cycle. In the worst of cases, deliberate fires are set off by ‘’arsonists,’’ or done by the not-so-innocent, ‘’kaingin’’ to free the land from weeds, or to promote natural growth, or turning the land into veritable ground for growing high value crops have sometimes an ill-effect when it comes out of hand, and out of control.
Lessons must have been learned from this sad experience, where authorities and the general public may want to establish safeguards and proper protocols to be observed, while stricter implementation of the laws must be religiously enforced so as not to make a repeat of such disaster from happening again in the foreseeable future. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and local authorities must also step up the protection of the natural state of Mt. Apo, same as with other parts of the country where the threat of neglect and irresponsible behavior could cause a repeat of such environmental tragedy.
Written by: Adonis Manzan, Typhoon Specialist (WeatherPhilippines Foundation)