Forest Firte Situation in Guatemala

Fire Situation in Guatemala

(IFFN No. 27 – July 2002, p. 33-37)

Fire environment, fire regimes, ecological role of fire common to country

The word Guatemala comes from the nahuatl “Guauhtemallan” which means”Land of Trees”. Guatemala has a variety of weather, water, soil, and biological patterns. The topography is shaped by a wide variety of altitudes ranging from 0 to 4,220 meters above sea level. The country has an extension of108,889 square kilometres, and a population of approximately 12 million people, with an annual growth rate of 2.5%. Sixty-five percent of the population live in rural areas (grouped in about 19,000 communities of approximately 2,000 people each) and 35% in urban areas.

Due to the variety of altitudes within Guatemala, 51% of the land are woodland sites. However, only 35.71% of the surface is covered by forests, out of which2.08% are coniferous forests, 25.97% broadleaved forests, 7.5% mixed forests, and 0.16% tropical forest. The non-forested land is formed by brushwood and scrubs.

Agriculture is still the most important economic activity in Guatemala. It is estimated that 52.2% of the economically active populations are working in the agricultural sector. Most of the farmers use the traditional system of slash-and-burn agriculture, mainly in shifting cultivation. This system uses fire as a tool to clear areas for crops.

Narrative summary of major wildfire impacts on people, property, and natural resources during the 1990s

In the last few years, wildfires have become a serious threat. Fires have caused the partial or total loss of forests affecting the hydrological cycle, and soil degradation, extinction or migration of fauna, and therefore ecological imbalance in general, which influences socio-economic and cultural aspects of the country (reduction in the sources of labour, loss of infrastructure, etc.).In the last two decades, different institutions have developed projects to prevent and control this kind of disaster. It started in the year 1980, when organizations such as Amigos del Bosque (Friends of the Forest), CARE, PeaceCorps, Institución Forestal (the Forest Institution), and the Cuerpo AéreoForestal (Air Forest Corps), Defensores de la Naturaleza (Defenders of Nature), and CONAP, among others, began training and controlling fires aiming communities, and training the team of the Consejo Nacional de Areas Protegidas, CONAP (National Council of Protected Areas).

Towards the end of 1997, there were heavy rains and frosts, which generated high loads of fuels in the dry forests. In 1998, the “El Niño” phenomenon caused a long drought and high temperatures. It was this year, when big losses took place. Government organizations became increasingly conscious and concerned about this issue, and it was at the end of this year when wildfires started being recorded.
In 1999, the forests had very scarce fuel, due to the fires in 1998.

In 2000, the number of wildfires increase, but the affected area was reduced by 92%as compared to 1998. In 2001, the number of wildfires did not increase. Every year, people have more experience. Even when the weather conditions are favourable for the development of wildfires, there are fewer fires.

Socio-Economicand Ecological or Environmental Effects of Fire

Socio-economic effects include the effects on public health and community development. Regarding public health we can mention soil, water, and atmospheric pollution. In regards to the effects on community development, there are property losses, halt in productive processes, reduction in opportunities of labour, limitations to rural development and local commerce.

Ecological effects include those on climate, soil, wildlife, and trees. The effects on the micro climate are visible by change of wind patterns, decrease in humidity, reduction of the available oxygen, among others. Effects on soil include the destruction of the physical properties, change in the chemical features of it, frequent loss of nutrients and biological properties, destruction of the organic layers. The effect of fire on trees can be seen by mortality and partial damage, physiological alterations and malformation, deterioration of the wood and biological and sanitary problems.

It is important to mention the effects on protected areas, as the Reservoir of the “Sierra de las Minas” Biosphere recorded an affected area of 3,825.25hectares, while the Reservoir of Petén Biosphere lost 1,560.0 hectares during the 2001 fires. However, these figures are estimates, and it is believed that the affected area is much bigger, and so is the number of protected areas that suffered the fires.

Although, great efforts are made to keep surveillance and constant monitoring over the 97protected areas that are part of the Guatemalan System of Protected Areas (Sistema Guatemalteco de Areas Protegidas – SIGAP), the economic, human and logistics resources are insufficient to obtain an accurate evaluation of the damages.

Another effect of fires is the plagues propagation, as happened in 1999, when there was an increase in the population of Ortogeomyssp. (cricket) and Heteromys sp.(rats). In the year 2000, there was a large mass outbreak of bark beetles (Dendroctonussp.).

After the devastating experience of the “El Niño” phenomenon in 1998, the Guatemalan government took the necessary steps for protecting the forest areas. The National System for Prevention and Control of Wildfires (Sistema Nacional dePrevención y Control de Incendios Forestales – SIPECIF) was created to meet this need. Statistics show an important reduction in wildfires since its establishment. Reductions of 98% in 1999, 57% in the year 2001, and 48% up to date, in the year 2002.

SIPECIF is working hard in controlling and preventing wildfires, in spite of its limited resources. The prevention campaigns do not have enough reach to teach people about the fire and its consequences. There is a need for training more technicians, having equipped wildfire firefighters who have the necessary knowledge, and the means to support them. However, the resources are insufficient to meet the demand. The problem worsens because of the population pressure to have access to natural resources, and the critical socio-economic situation in the country.

Statistical database on wildland fires

Table 1. Wildland fire statistics of Guatemala of the period 1998 – 2002.

*The data for 2002 was collected up to 7 May 2002

 Operational fire management systems

The government agreement 63-2000 was issued to create the National System for Prevention and Control of Wildfires (Sistema Nacional de Prevención y Control de Incendios Forestales – SIPECIF). This is structured by a Coordinating Council, and a Technical Council. It is integrated by the following institutions:

  1. National Institute of Forest (Instituto Nacionalde Bosques – INAB)
  2. National Council of Protected Areas (Consejo Nacional de Áreas Protegidas – CONAP)
  3. Environment and Natural Resources Ministry(Ministerio de Ambiente y Recursos Naturales – MARN
  4. National Security Ministry (Ministerio de laDefensa Nacional – MDN)
  5. Executive Coordination Secretary of thePresidency (Secretaría de Coordinación Ejecutiva de la Presidencia – SCEP)
  6. National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction(Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres – CONRED)


The objective is to create environmental conscience in the Guatemalan population to prevent wildfires, in order to reduce the incidences of this through communication campaigns, a training plan, a National Strategy, radio spots, community meetings, extension, and having legal leverage.

Control of wildfires

The following arrangements in fire management are in place:

Organization: Emergency Operation Centers (Centros de Operaciones de Emergencias – COE) were established for wildfires (Incendios Forestales – IF). The task of the COEIFs is to control fires. They are coordinated by a director who is the representative of the governor; director assistants are responsible for the sections Operations, Planning, Logistics and Finances. Also, there are town COEIF, which are directed by the Mayor. Some other government institutions support SIPECIF’swork, such as The National Peace Fund (Fondo Nacional para la Paz – FONAPAZ),Ministry of Health, Ministry of Agriculture, Voluntary Firefighters, Town Firefighters, the National Civil Police (PNC), the Environment ProtectionService (Servicio de Protección al Ambiente – SEPRONA), among others.

Detection: It is achieved in conjunction of land inspection, a communication system processing calls from citizens, institutions, air transportation companies. There are eight detection towers for wildfires located in strategic areas.Information about heat point detection is provided by the National Commission for the Knowledge and Use of Biodiversity of Mexico (Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad CONABIO, México); see webpage:

Analysis and Deployment: The wildfire operations are planned. There are two types of control: DirectControl, which utilizes backpack pumps, and shovels. Indirect Control involves fireline construction by conventional tools and machinery; in some cases chemical retardants are used.

Procedure: The following procedure has been established: It starts from the call or notification of a possible wildfire. The fire report format is filled out, and conveyed to the sub-region that corresponds, they fill the wildfire report card. This information is put into the field report, which is given to the forest technician (who is also the chief of the wildfire firefighters). This is the person that directs the control of the fire, fills out the data in the field report, and who is in charge of answering the phone calls and radio. The information is then sent to the Planning Section to be included in the national statistical data.

Central Command: It is managed by the COEIF director and the person who supervises the activities of the Operations, Planning, Logistics, and Finance Sections.

Fire Fighters Role: They are organized in groups of 10 people. They are trained with the basic knowledge in fire control and tools. They work under the supervision and command of a forest technician.

Information on the Web:There is a web page in which the visitors can learn about the work of SIPECIF, and contact the office to get more information about wildfires in Guatemala:

Use of prescribed fire

Very few times prescribed fire has been use to reduce fuels. Guatemala still does not have a planned campaign and trained personnel to carry out the handling of fuels. Currently, training activities are taking place, educating technicians tohave them implementing this knowledge at national level. In some towns in Petén,procedures have been established to have authorized fires for agriculture. Thereis a big drawback, there is no resources to supervise the controlled fires.Regional authorities allow the use of controlled fire to prepare the land forcrops, but this is a process that needs to be developed.

Sustainable land-use practices employed in the country of the region to reduce wildfire hazards and wildfire risks. These are basically systems of Integrated Forest FireManagement (IFFM) in which land-use systems are embedded in fire-prone areas in such a manner that they are likely to reduce the spread or intensity of wildfires, e.g. by fuel breaks maintained by agricultural, pastoral or recreational activities; or mention alternatives to replace traditional use of fire for land clearing or maintenance.

In Guatemala, in order to reduce fuels, fire barriers are done. In areas considered important cultural heritage, such as Parque Tikal, and Tiger Lagoon, among others; the management of the land is being encouraged through management plans. Thirty-six forest management plans have been developed for an area of 13,952 hectares and 496 plans for replanting trees in a surface of 18,714.4 hectares. Besides, there are 50,721 hectares under forest management.

Public policies concerning fire

The following legislation and policies concerning wildland fires are in place in Guatemala:

Forest Law, Decree 101-96

Rules regarding notification of wildfires, and it demands from rural farm owners to permit entrance to people controlling the fires.

Protection and Environment Improvement Law

of certain social, economical, scientific, and technological development to prevent pollution, and to keep the ecological equilibrium.

Protected Areas Law

It oversees national conservancy of biological diversity through the protection of certain areas declared and managed.

Resolution No. 15-98

The Congress of the Republic manifests its concern for the extremely high levels of wildfires.

Government Agreement 35-2000

Itis founded in the belief that the State has to dictate the necessary norms toguarantee the reasonable use and conservation of the environment.

Law of Fire (in process)

It rules the use of fire as a tool in the preparation of land that will be used forcrops.

IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:

Mayor Guillermo Orozco
Coordinador de Consejo Técnico SIPECIF (Sistema Nacional de Prevención y Control de Incendios Forestales)
32 Calle 8-00 zona 11, las Charcas
01011 Guatemala, Cuidad

Tel:            ++502-476-1743
Fax:            ++502-230-1710

IFFN No. 27
Country Notes

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