Responsible climbers descending from the peak of Mt. Pulag, which recently lost 1.5 hectares due to a brushfire. (Gregg Yan)
Dry vegetation and fire? An explosive combo.
Mt. Pulag, Luzon’s highest peak, lost 1.5 hectares of prime grassland last 22 January when an errant camp stove started a grassfire which took eight hours to burn out.
In 2016, Mt. Apo, the country’s highest, Mt. Kanlaon, tallest of all Visayan peaks, and Bud Bongao, the holy mountain of Tawi-Tawi – were scarred by flames.
Mt. Apo and Bud Bongao were damaged by fires spurred on by errant campfires while Mt. Kanlaon discharged superheated rocks to ignite vegetation baked dry by El Niño. Mt. Apo lost close to 350 hectares, while Mt. Kanlaon lost over 400 hectares. In April 2015, trekkers accidentally burnt down 29 hectares in Mt. Kanlaon.
Dry weather and wind can quickly spread fire to adjacent areas. The consequences are dire – in Indonesia, uncontrolled forest fires consumed millions of hectares of forest and have taken years to quell. So what can be done to save our summits?
The first solution is to quickly create firebreaks when a brushfire begins. Firebreaks are unbroken lanes from six to ten feet wide, cleared of all vegetation. Looking like dirt roads, firebreaks can greatly reduce the ability of fire to spread further.
Fires smoldering in Southern Luzon. Though illegal, the open burning of vegetation is still widespread in the Philippines. (Gregg Yan)
The next solution is to enforce the ban on kaingin – the controlled but illegal burning of land which during El Niño spells, usually prove very hard to control. Wind can pick up embers and cause fires far away from kaingin plots.
The third solution is for mountaineers and trekkers to police their camps. Campfires should be immediately banned and stoves used only in open ground, at least six feet from dry vegetation. Spilled fuel or a knocked-over stove is all it takes to ignite dry tinder and turn a mountain into a giant pyre.
Smoking must be banned on mountains as cigarette butts smolder long after being snubbed out. Leave No Trace principles must be the lifeblood of all mountaineers: take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time.
What must be done when a brushfire abates? Reforest the area right before the rains come in, usually in June. Plant only native Philippine trees – species already naturally found in the area. Don’t introduce foreign tree species or biodiversity will be affected.
With summer only a few months away, local government units, management bodies and communities must immediately look into firebreaks and education before more peaks go Mt. Pulag’s way.