In the Philippines, about 5.49 million ha or roughly 18 percent of the total land area are still covered with forests. The remaining old growth, or primary dipterocarp forests, comprises only about 0.804 million ha, far from the 12 million ha of old-growth forest that existed 55 years ago (Igsoc 1999). A close look at the causes of this reduction indicates that the major factors of denudation are kaingin, or shifting cultivation, forest fires, illegal occupancy, conversion to other uses, clearing in the process of logging, pests and diseases. Fire is obviously a very serious problem that threatens the few remaining forests of the country. Humans have caused most of the reported forest fires, either intentionally for economic gains such a kaingin, charcoal production, etc., or unintentionally through negligence or carelessness.
The major forest vegetation types of the Philippines include:
Dipterocarp forest at 0-800 meters above sea level (m. s. l.);
Mangrove and beach type forests (within the coastlines);
Molave forest (premium hardwood at 0-800 m. s. l.);
Pine forest (800-2 000 m. s. l.);
Mossy forest (Lithocarpus and Podocarpus species at the higher fringes).
Four climatic zones are distinguished in the country by distribution of precipitation:
I Six months dry and six months wet.
II No definite dry season, wet from November to January.
III Dry from November to April, wet during the rest of the year.
IV Rainfall evenly distributed throughout the year.
Southeast Asia is periodically affected by the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) phenomenon that induces prolonged dry or wet seasons. If a prolonged drought occurs, the aforementioned forest vegetation types are prone to disturbance by wildfires, except for mangrove and beach type forests.
Prior to massive land-use changes (1960s-1970s) in the different forest vegetation types, fire protection efforts were concentrated in the pine forests, predominantly in Pinus kesiya and Pinus merkusii stands. These pine forests are still the most fire-prone forest ecosystems in the Philippines, although grasslands, plantations and agricultural areas are also vulnerable and at high risk for wildfires that threaten adjacent forests.
During the drought of 1983, the first large fire was experienced in the dipterocarp rainforest in the southern part of the country (Mindanao). The massive build-up of understory fuels, coupled with drought and the presence of a large number of ignition sources resulted in an unprecedented fire situation in the Philippines and Southeast Asia. The major factors that contributed to the abnormal situation in the Southeast Asian rainforest were:
Land-use changes brought about by forest resource exploitation;
Agricultural expansion due to the survival needs of an ever-increasing population; and
Erratic climatic changes with prolonged droughts.
The montane “mossy forest” stretching above the pine forest belt is not usually prone to fire. Regular burning of the pine forests in the lower slopes is slowly reducing the mossy forest area at its edges, causing the intrusion of pine and grassland vegetation. This situation threatens the valuable mossy forest with its biodiversity-rich vegetation, which is high in medicinal, scientific and ecological values. This type of forest is an important habitat of migrating birds from mainland Asia.
The indigenous pine forest on the island of Luzón is a fire climax forest due to its long history of regular fire influence. Evidence is given by dendrochronological analyses (fire scars in tree stems) and by reports of villagers on large fire events in the hinterlands of the Cordillera mountain range in the northern part of Luzon Island. According to these reports, fires could burn whole villages when houses were made with thatched grass roofs. In 1975, a sawmill and its surrounding residential houses were burned when crown fires occurred on the steep slopes of the nearby pine forest. This happened again in the same spot in 1987. In 1981, two firefighters were killed when they were trapped in the rugged terrain of a watershed. During the drought of 1983, a vehicle was burned while at a fire scene.
Figure 1. Severe site degradation in the montane pine forest (Pinus kesiya) in the cordillera of Luzón, Philippines, due to the combined effects of trampling, grazing and fire. Photo: GFMC
Large fires in the pine forest often burn for weeks and are difficult to control due to the rugged mountainous terrain, lack of appropriate equipment and the unavailability of trained manpower. Large fires in different parts of the country, along with other neighbouring Southeast Asian countries, contributed significantly to the smoke-haze in Asia, especially during the drought of 1997-1998. Fire data for the 1990’s in different regions of the country are shown in Table 1.
Table 1. Forest destruction in the Philippines by cause
Source: DENR Annual Reports cited by Igsoc (1999).
Fire management organizations
Operational experiences in fire protection and management are more specialized within the pine forest area and forestry projects where external assistance has been provided. In the 1970s and 1980s, a fire control council for the pine forest area existed whereby all involved organizations (government agencies, local government, industries and private sector) were being coordinated by the Bureau of Forest Development. The reorganization of the operations of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which included the Bureau, resulted in the council’s discontinuance. Fire protection was relegated to the regular operations of the DENR’s field units.
A technical cooperation project, which focused on basic fire research and provided a fire management operational force within the Cordillera Administrative Region, was implemented with FAO assistance from 1987-1990.
With the shift of DENR’s operations in the 1990s, the regular forest protection units of DENR have to contend with meagre government funds and limited personnel. While the communities in the field were enjoined to help in fire protection, operational facilities and large fire organization needs cannot be met, which in some aspects discourages volunteerism.
In the case of industries, they maintained their own organizational capabilities and on several occasions the DENR provided training at their request. The decentralization of power to the local governments has also fostered innovation in isolated cases, depending on priorities. In Mountain Province, a fire prevention incentive mechanism was implemented with the political leadership (concept published with IFFN in 1997) for a short period.
The large fires that occurred during the 1997-1998 drought highlighted the need for a national fire organization. The Armed Forces were involved in the suppression activities that led to the declaration of forest fires as a national disaster. At present, national coordination and operational capability is still needed in case of a drought where wildfires are expected. Research activities to improve capability and draw up a national program are needed in the following areas:
An appropriate fire danger rating system in various forest vegetation types;
Fuel assessment at various locations and forest vegetation types;
Development of appropriate technologies;
Development of burning prescription guidelines.
The use of prescribed burning as a management tool has been in use in various areas in the country, although policy guidelines for such actions have not been provided. This is most common in the areas such as:
pasture areas to induce forage;
fuel reduction (pine forest);
natural regeneration (pine forest);
debris burning in farm lots especially within forest and nearby communities.
In most forestry projects implemented by the government, hazard and risk reduction are conducted as an integral part of the activity. However, these are not being monitored and studied for proper technology improvement.
The forestry policy in the Philippines is outdated with a bill on sustainable forest management yet to be passed by Congress. The discouragement of private ownership of forest resources puts pressure on government agencies with the responsibility for fire protection.
Igsoc (1999) stated: “The Philippines has not been successful in forest protection and conservation as manifested by the present state of the Philippine rain forests. Forest fire control and management is only one of the many conservation issues that have been inadequately addressed as shown by the absence of appropriate legislation.
To its credit however, the government through the DENR, when confronted with problems arising from forest depletion, has demonstrated its willingness to make drastic but appropriate revisions of its forest policies. The basic lesson learned by government is that when local people possess secure land tenures, they strive hard to maintain the productive capacity of such land resources. Thus, the government logically concluded that local people can be tapped as effective forest managers by granting them tenurial instruments on public forestlands that need rehabilitation and protection under the community-based forest management program.
The full implementation of the DENR’s reorganization in 1988 provided the abolition of the Forest Protection and Law Enforcement Division and transform the defunct Bureau of Forest Development (BFD) as staff bureau which is now called Forest Management Bureau (FMB). In other words there is no longer a definite Office or Division in the Central Office who will oversee, coordinate, monitor and evaluate the nationwide implementation of forest fire control and management program. Thus, it is recommended that the former Forest Protection and Law Enforcement Division be restored in the FMB who shall be given the task, among others, to see to it that field offices have adequate manpower and trained forest protection personnel; recommend appropriate fire fighting tools and communications facilities to be procured and distributed to CENROs; should take the lead in the training of forest protection personnel and firefighting crews in coordination with the DENR Human Resources Development Office.
While it is true that personnel training is vital for the effective forest fire prevention and control, equally important is to provide these trained firefighters with appropriate firefighting tools, vehicles for mobility and transport and communication facilities.
The Information, Education and Communication (IEC) campaign using a multi-media approach has made some impacts in the forest consciousness of the public that has greatly helped in curbing illegal logging but not so much in preventing and controlling forest fires. While the companies are able to advertise their consumer products on television as frequently as every 30 minutes, the government seldom used this medium in fire prevention campaign on the grounds that TV airtime is relatively expensive. It is high time now to redirect priorities and the IEC approach to create greater impact to the general public awareness in fire prevention and suppression aspects.”
IFFN/GFMC contribution submitted by:
Manuel L. Pogeyed
Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Cordillera Administrative Region
# 80 Diego Silang Street
2600 Baguio City
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Igsoc, R. O. 1999. Appropriate mission and structural organization concerning forest fire management, the Philippines. Paper presented during the 2nd International Workshop on Forest Fire Control and Suppression Aspects, Bogor, Indonesia, 16-21, February 1999.
Jurvélius, M., and D. L. Bartolazo. 1995. Creation of a new Forest Protection and Rehabilitation Division. Int. Forest Fire News No. 13, 18-19.
Pogeyed, M. L. 1998. No Fire Bonus Plan Program of Mountain Province. Int. Forest Fire News No. 18, 52-56.