Mexico has a long and interesting history of forest fires. The conditions exist for natural fires, though human settlement has, for millennia, dominated the geography and dynamics of burning. Today, from 2,740 to >12,873 (partial figure, 1998 fire-season) registered forest fires burn between 44,401 ha to 518,265 ha per year. Only 7% of these are due to natural and unknown causes, according to official reports. Mexico’s history helps to explain much of its current condition.
Ancient Anthropogenic Fire
With human colonization, fire risk, fire danger, and fire frequency all gradually increased through millennia, altering both fire regimes and vegetation. From ancient times, for example, native Mexicans used fire on grasslands to assist hunting. Presently, we can see the consequences of these historic practices in the two extremes of Mexico’s fire gradient. One extreme is deforestation, although not always fire-related (300,000 ha annually). The other is fire exclusion, which is typical of several commercial pine forests. Natural and anthropogenic fires help to maintain various vegetation types, as in the case of several pine forests (Fig.1.)
Many activities of ancient Mexicans started forest fires. For example, they felled trees by cutting a strip around the trunk with a stone or copper axe, then put fuels at the base to start a fire; this eventually toppled the tree (Moncayo 1975). In Teotihuacan, wood charcoal was used to feed ovens to process building and ceramic materials (Vázquez-Yañez 1982), so sites for charcoaling were common, as they still are today in several oak regions. Both these activities increased risk, and forest fires resulted because of accidental or negligent causes. In the absence of metal tools, agriculturalists also used fire extensively to clear woody areas.
In tropical areas, the Olmecs developed an efficient slash-and-burn cultivation some 3,500 years ago, and that agricultural system was used by the Mayas as well. The steps of this system, which is still broadly used in tropical Mexico and which has as its main crop maize, are: select the land, measure and delimit the chosen site, cut the vegetation, clear a fire break, burn, fence, sow, control weeds, and harvest. The present empirical knowledge that peasant descendants of the Mayas have by which they control fire behaviour according to particular needs and site characteristics tells us about the ancient fire lore of the Mayas. Today, however, with an increase in population and a reduction in the land surface available per native owner, the efficient 30 or so year rotation of old has reduced to some three years, with adverse ecological effects and a loss of productivity (Fig.2.)
But the original spirit of the people was conservationist. They knew that wild plants and animals provided them with many goods and services essential to survival, and this was good reason to consider them as gods. So even as human population increased, society stratified, resources became scarce, and droughts and hunger occurred, the care of wildlife was a communal and official task (Aguilera 1985). The Chichimec king Nopaltzin established norms to restrict the burning of grasslands and forests, and his grandson Texcocan king Netzahualcoyotl dictated laws to protect forests (Villaseñor 1980).
The useful and feared fire, moreover, was part of the rich ancient Mexican mythology, as shown by the notion of fire as a renewal element in the Aztec ceremony of the “new fire.” This ceremony reflects a preoccupation with the fate of the sun. In the night at the end of a 52-year cycle, every fire in temples and houses was extinguished, and at the same time a group of priests lit a new fire on a hill near the city. Then the people knew that this world would end and a new cycle begin (Vázquez-Soto 1972). Another example is the god of fire Xiuhtecuhtli, also known as Huehueteotl, or old god, represented by an elder with a brazier on his head.
After the conquest of ancient Mexico by Spain, agriculture in forest lands intensified. This fact plus such native practices as charcoaling and those practices introduced by the conquerors such as mining and cattle raising, along with the demand for fuel wood as a source of energy, greatly increased forest exploitation (Gutiérrez-Palacio 1989) and of course forest fires. The regidores de montes (a type of forest ranger) had as their responsibilities to care for the forest, including the coordination of rural communities to fight fire (Quevedo 1928). Legislation supported fire prevention and control, as with the Mesta ordinance, which established fines as penalties for those responsible for forest fires (Zuno 1973). But all these good intentions and legislation were not sufficient, and the degradation of the forests continued. An independent Mexico created a Forest Service and a forest ranger corps in 1861 (Verduzco-Gutiérrez 1959).
The 20th Century
In 1900 Miguel Angel de Quevedo successfully convinced the federal government to establish a forest protection program, over which he subsequently presided. This institution became the primary organ for modern reforestation and the control of forest fires. During the 1920s several reforms accelerated forest fire protection. The first forest law was promulgated, which included provisions for forest fires. Technical trips were conducted to the USA, technical papers on fire were published in the journal México Forestal, and the installation of towers for fire detection was begun. The era identified fire as the main destructive factor of forests, considered the prevention of fires crucial, and recognized humans as the major cause of fires. By the 1930s a special Forest Fires Office developed. It had as a strategy, supported by law, the coordination of non-federal human and material resources to fight fire and the creation of volunteer corps. But resources for fire control were scarce.
In 1961 President Adolfo López Mateos established a 5-year plan that increased dramatically the financial, human, and material resources to fight fire, primarily in Central Mexico, the critical area. Since then, with highs and lows, the magnitude and efficiency of human, financial, and material resources has increased. Presently, according to Cedeño-Sánchez (unpublished) the federal government has more than 1,800 fire fighters, 133 detection towers, 145 vehicles, while forest owners provide more than 4,000 fire fighters, 96 detection towers, and 313 vehicles, among other resources. A large proportion of the fire fighters have received training courses of middle to high level. In the 1960s the government brought five helicopters for fire detection. By the 1980s helicopters and planes participated in fire control as well. Also in the 1980s computerized systems such as BEHAVE (USA) and EXTINGE (Mexico) were adopted for fire modeling and the development of fire danger and risk maps (Rodríguez-Trejo 1996). Additionally, prescribed burns are applied on larger surfaces, with more diverse objectives.
Historically forest fires have been an important tool for agriculture and cattle ranching in Mexico. Such practices have contributed as fire causes even to the present day, thus assisting deforestation. But it must be recognized also that the frequent surficial fires in several regions have helped maintain pine forests and have reduced the danger of crown fires. The size and efficiency of fire fighting in Mexico continues to progress. For example, during recent years the average size of forest fires has been less than 40 ha/fire. Moreover, the universities and forest research centers are focusing more on several aspects of forest fires for both operational needs and fire ecology.
Brief update: The 1998-fire season
This was the hardest fire season in Mexican history. By 3 June 1998, near to the end of the regular fire-season in the majority of the territory, 12,873 fires affected 439,945 ha. Because of El Niño, Mexico experimented the worst drought in 70 years and that complicated severely the fire season. 60 persons died fighting the forest fires, and the smoke produced in central Mexico, Southern Mexico and Central America, reached several USA states, as Texas, Georgia, Arizona and Florida. The smoke produced pollution problems to several cities as Mexico City, Villahermosa, San Cristóbal de las Casas, among others. Several evacuations were done in some periurban areas and villages. By the mentioned date, the president authorized in two occasions an increment in budget to fight the fire, and the USA offered and provided generous technical and financial help to fight the fires. 6,000 fire fighters were active, plus 139,000 elements of the Army, and thousands of volunteers also participated. 57 aircraft from Mexico, the USA and Canada were used in combat activities and the cost of this season it was 290 million Mexican pesos (US$33.3 million), without taking in account the expenses by the governments of each state.
To Dr. Stephen J. Pyne, for his valuable comments to this paper and review of the English language. To Dr. Johann G. Goldammer, for the edition and opportunity to publish this material, and to the CONACYT, who supports my Ph.D. studies.
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From: Dante Arturo Rodríguez-Trejo Address: División de Ciencias Forestales y del Ambiente Universidad Autónoma Chapingo, Chapingo Edo. de México, CP 56230 MEXICO
Presently Ph.D. student at:
School of Forest Resources and Conservation University of Florida 226 Newins Ziegler Hall PO Box 110410 USA – Gainesville, FL 32611-0410