Fire on the mountain
Philippine Daily Inquirer
February 18, 2018 at 5:12 am

Its summit ringed by clouds, Mount Pulag rises 2,922 meters above sea level — the third highest peak in the Philippines (after Mounts Apo and Dulang-Dulang) and an extremely popular trekking destination in January and February, when mountaintop temperatures can drop to 10 below zero.

But the mountain that straddles the provinces of Benguet, Ifugao and Nueva Vizcaya has been plagued by harmful fires generally caused by ignorant climbers and trekkers who do not care much about its beauty and biodiversity and the importance of preservation and conservation.

Last Jan. 20 a fire damaged around 1.5 hectares of Pulag’s grassland.

The circumstances that led to the blaze are both tragic and ridiculous: A group of hikers were cooking rice on a butane stove that exploded. Panicked, one of them picked up the stove and threw it into a grassy area, igniting the fire that spread very quickly.

By the time it was put out, the fire had caused an estimated P2.3 million in damage. Pulag’s Akiki trail was immediately closed to hikers.

End of story? Not quite. Roberto Cereno, director of the Training Center for Tropical Resources and Ecosystem Sustainability of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, said the fire occurred at Saddle camp, which is close to the summit and covered in dwarf bamboo, a grass type “unique” to Mount Pulag and Oriental Mindoro’s Mount Halcon.

No one was hurt in the fire, but “there were microorganisms, insects disturbed,” Cereno said. “Something was still killed [in that fire],”  and it might take a full year for the grass to recover.

The 11,000-hectare Mount Pulag National Park is rich in plant and animal life; its environmental importance is endangered by boneheaded trekkers like the ones who started the fire.

It isn’t the first time this has happened—a fire also occurred on Pulag in 2003—but hopefully it will be the last.

Steps are now being taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Ralph Pablo, Cordillera regional director of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources said trekkers may be barred from Pulag for at least six months — until July — to allow the mountain to heal.

Additionally, Pablo, citing recommendations from the Bureau of Fire Protection, said trekkers intending to camp out on the mountain may be required to bring fire extinguishers or retardant tanks.

“There is no water at the summit to douse any fire. Had there been water or a fire extinguisher, the campers may not have panicked and would have controlled the blaze,” he said.

The DENR has also filed a complaint against the seven hikers at the office of the Benguet prosecutor for causing the fire, citing Section 69 of Presidential Decree No. 705, or the Forest Code of the Philippines, which states that anyone who “sets a fire or negligently permits fire to be set in any forest could be jailed for less than six years and shall pay eight times the cost of the damage.” If found guilty, the hikers might have to pay up to P16 million and serve six years in prison.

To prevent fires such as this one that damaged Mount Pulag or the one that ravaged 100 hectares of Mount Apo in Davao in March 2016, a general education campaign has to be mounted for climbers and hikers.

There should be a limit on equipment to be brought on the trails. Indeed, the number of climbers and trekkers may have to be curbed, just as the idea of limiting visitors to the paradise that was once Boracay is now being considered.

Pushing back on the horde of climbers and hikers (particularly those who have yet to be fully educated on their concomitant responsibilities) will allow for better management of the climbing season and for reduced environmental impact.

Cereno has also called for Pulag to be declared a protected area.

There is a crying need for Filipinos to be cognizant of the value of environmental protection. With travel now high on the priority list, every climber, diver, or tourist needs to be educated on what to do and what to avoid before they venture out. And laws punishing fire-starters and polluters, whether visitors or facility owners and operators, need to be strictly enforced.

Else all the outrage and hand-wringing would be useless lip service, which is how things  have always been done in this sad and beautiful archipelago.

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