Cuba: An Overview on Forest Fires in Cuba (IFFN No. 22 – April 2000)

An Overview on Forest Fires in Cuba

(IFFN No. 22 – April 2000, p. 20-23)


Cuba is a tropical country located in the Caribbean sea to the North of the Equator between 19o and 24o N and 74º – 85º W. Its total area and population are 110,922 km2 and more than 11 millions people, respectively.

Concerning climate there are two very well defined seasons, the rainy season (May to October) and the dry season (November to April). The average annual rainfall ranges from 1110 mm to 1300 mm and the average annual temperature ranges from 22oC (January) to 28oC (August). Humidity ranges from 77 % (April) to 82 % (September).

Agriculture and tourism are the main sources of income to the National Economy. Sugar cane, tobacco and coffee constitute the major agricultural products of the country, while the forest resource does not surpass even 1 % out of the gross national product.

Owing to the increase in afforestation and reforestation developed in Cuba since 1959, together with continuous population growth, forest fire risks have also increased. This paper offers an overview about forest fires in Cuba.

Forest vegetation

In 1492, the forests covered 80 % of Cuba. Since then selective harvesting of the best species of wood began. Owing to this activity and the development of agriculture the forest covered only 13.4 % of the total area of the country by 1959. Since 1959 important afforestation and reforestation plans have been put into action in Cuba. These plans are responsible for 21 % of the total area being covered by forests (2,400,000 ha) in 1998. The main species included in the afforestation and reforestation plans are: Pinus caribaea, Eucalyptus spp. and Casuarina spp. These species have a high level of inflammability. For that reason and also for the rising population, forest fire risks have been increasing this past decade.

In 1998 the Cuban government signed the Forest Law (Law 85/98) with the objective of guaranteeing the conservation and development of the forest resource, based on a sustainability.

Fire occurrence

Several forest fires occur every year in Cuba, as well as in other countries. However, this does not represent a great problem. Table 1 shows a summary of data from 1984 to 1998 on forest fires and its burned area. In this period a mean of 325 forest fires occurred annually, and 4878 ha were affected. The average area burned by fire was of 15 ha/fire. Figure 1 also illustrates the distribution of fires and the area burned.

The fire season is defined according to rainy and dry season. Data from Table 2 show that in the period February – May the ca. 80% of total fires occur. Figure 2 shows the fire distribution by month.

Causes of forest fires

Table 3 illustrates forest fires started in the most common ways in Cuba from 1989 to 1998. The main cause is human activity (88 %). Figure 3 further shows that in the last years the real number of forest fire causes is not definitely known. This situation does not help forest fire prevention.

Fire in other land-use systems – often cause of forest fires

Fire is used frequently as a handling tool of the land in Cuba. Burning is practised at the end of the dry season in order to renew grass to feed livestock. It is also used by farmers to eliminate crop waste and to clean the soil before planting. From November until April fire is used to facilitate the harvest of sugar cane or to cultivate sugar cane plantations in order to increase yields. The sugar cane fields are divided with firebreak which are kept clean during the whole year to avoid spreading planned or uncontrolled fires over large areas.

In order to prevent the development of uncontrollable fires and the escape of wildfires precaution measures are taken when igniting sugar cane. The controlled fires are started late in the afternoon when air temperature and wind speeds are low and the relative humidity is high. The fires are set by trained people, and fire trucks and water tenders are on standby for controlling the fires. It is required to obtain an official burning permission since the legislation generally prohibits burning of vegetation. Despite these prevention rules negligence in burning sugar cane and using fire in other land use-systems frequently cause forest fires.

Ways of fires prevention and suppressions

The organization and management of fire protection in Cuba is undertaken by the Forest Ranger Department (CGB) in the Ministry of the Interior, as set out in the Forest Law. This department in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture has set out specialised measures of fire prevention. As established by the above mentioned law, the system for forest fire protection comprises activities for prevention, control and suppression, as well as research and training in this area. These activities are regulated by a National Program created by the Ministry of the Interior in collaboration with the Ministries of Science, Technology and the Environment, and the National Council of Civil Defence.

The main actions to be undertaken are:

  • In periods of drought the majority of CGB workers are dedicated fundamentally to forest fire protection, activating control points, paying particular attention to ground patrols and increasing consciousness through personal contacts and participatory events with food growers, farmers, and villagers from wooded regions, as well as speakers in bush primary schools.

  • The used lookout towers, placement of personal on hilltops (lookout points) and the employment of other efficient ways of notifying the authorities of fire will improve vigilance and protection from forest fires. During fire season (February to May) AN-2 (Antonov) airplanes for aerial detection are used. These planes patrol the areas of highest risk during the hours when fires tend to occur.

  • Cuba is divided into six ecological regions and each one is further divided into territories of protection. Recent technical studies have assured the establishment of effective means of fire prevention in each one of these areas.

  • The CGB is working together with various organisations and entities in the forests and surrounding areas.

  • Locally brochures and flyers are being printed and distributed. These reinforce the campaign of consciousness – raising through local and mass media.

Concerning fire suppression, forestry law sets out that suppression of fires in wildlands is to be carried out by the CGB.

In Cuba there more than 30 Forest Fires Control Units (UCIF) are situated in highest risk forests and are operating all year. The personnel in these units are trained to suppress forest fires and have at their disposal telephones or 2-way radios, manual equipment and fire trucks, although in limited numbers. PZL–M18 (Dromader) airtankers are also used during the fire season every year.

Direct and indirect methods are used to attack forest fires. Branches obtained from the same area are used as a fire swatter. Owing to the fact that a considerable part of the forest is located in mountainous zone of complex topography, backfiring techniques are used.

Volunteer brigades are also used for the protection of the forest and fauna. They are comprised mostly of local villagers.

In case of extensive forest fires, the government and political authorities help with resources. Also, command posts and other temporary infrastructures are set up from which collective decisions are made in to take the most effective action.


Forest fires are not a great problem in Cuba, but every year some fires occur that have a negative effect on forest vegetation impacting on the environment. Forest fire protection in Cuba is organised, however, the CGB has been instituting a National Program for Forest Fires Protection.

Marcos Pedro Ramos Rodríguez
Universidad de Pinar del Río.
Apartado Postal 268, Pinar del Río 1
Código 20100


Caraza, R., and E.Quintero. 1991. Agrometeorología. Universidad Central de las Villas. Publicaciones CDICT, 391 p.
Servicio Estatal Forestal. 1999. Ley Forestal, su reglamento y contravenciones. Cuba, 93 p.

Tab.1. Forest fire occurrence and burned area in Cuba 1984-1998

SOURCE: Cuerpo de Guardabosques. Cuba. 1999.

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Fig.1. Distribution of forest fires and burned area in Cuba 1984 – 1998

Tab.2. Fire distribution by month in Cuba 1981 – 1996.

SOURCE: Cuerpo de Guardabosques. Cuba. 1999.

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Fig. 2. Fire distribution by month in Cuba 1981 – 1996

Tab.3. Major causes of forest fires in Cuba 1989 – 1998

SOURCE: Cuerpo de Guardabosques. Cuba. 1999.

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Fig.3. Major causes distribution of forest fires in Cuba 1989 – 1998

click to enlarge

Fig.4. Satellite image of Cuba on 15 April 1999 in the early afternoon. The NOAA AVHRR scene processed by the Operational Significant Event Imagery (OSEI) server of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows fire signatures and smoke plumes from land-use fires. Heat signals in the lower right (southeast) part of Cuba are due to solar heating. Source: NOAA.

Country Notes
IFFN No. 22

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