Fire razes 50 has. of mystical Banahaw

FIRE of still unknown origin struck Mt. Banahaw around 6 pm on Wednesday, destroying 50 hectares of forest so far and threatening endangered plants and animals, officials said Thursday.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said the fire near the mountain’s summit was still spreading.

Forest fire. A potential environmental disaster is
developing in Quezon province as fire of still
undetermined origin consumed a large swath
of forest at the southern side of Mount Banahaw
(inset) Wednesday night. By Thursday, the affected
area had reached 50 hectares and authorities
were still uncertain if the fire had already been
Firefighters had still not reached the blaze some 18 hours after it was first observed, said municipal disaster official Elmer Bustamante.

“The area is too steep,” he said by telephone from the town of Sariaya at the base of the mountain, about 95 kilometers south of Manila.

Environment officials in the region were surveying the fire aboard military aircraft to check the extent of the damage and see how best to put it under control, Bustamante said.

The cause of the fire was unknown, he said.

But Fred Palencia, an Environment Department officer in Quezon, said the fire was most likely caused by man.

Protected Area Supt. Sally Pangan said they were investigating three groups whose applications to climb the mountain had been rejected.

Backpackers have been banned from the 2,158-meter peak since 2004 to protect its biodiversity.

Several small sects that worship at caves and springs on the mountain’s lower slopes continue to have access there, though officials said there had been no reports of anyone being trapped in the fire.

Still, forest ranger Magtanggol Barrion said 11 people had been rescued from a camp site.

Director Vicente Tomazar of the Disaster Council said they were still verifying reports that 20 mountaineers were trapped in the foothills.

Wildlife officials of the Environment Department told AFP Banahaw’s forests, including a 10,900-hectare protected zone, are home to scores of animal species found only in the Philippines, including a species of cloud rat discovered only in 2004.

However, they said, they had yet to receive a report of the extent of the damage.

Ivan Herzano, project officer of the non-government group Foundation for the Philippine Environment, said despite access restrictions, forest rangers lacked the capability to track all the people who might be illegally entering the protected area.

“Most likely it was a man-made fire,” he said.

Hunters illegally looking for game could have lit dry litter on the forest floor by carelessly discarding cigarette butts, he said.

The foundation has recently completed a 60-hectare reforestation project on the mountain, which has protected zones that are off limits to human habitation as well as “multiple-use zones” on its lower slopes reserved for locals, Herzano said. Benjie A. Antiquia, Francisco Tuyay, Florante S. Solmerin, AFP

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