Fri, Mar 21, 2014 - Page 6 News List

Mount Banahaw hit by forest fire in Philippines

AFP, MANILA

A forest fire was raging atop a Philippine mountain, threatening endangered plants and animals in an area also considered by some local religious groups as a holy place, officials said.

The National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said about 10 hectares of forest near the summit had been destroyed as of early yesterday.

In an advisory, it also warned that the fire near the summit of Mount Banahaw was still spreading.

Firefighters had still not reached the blaze about 18 hours after it was first observed, municipal disaster official Elmer Bustamante said.

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

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

The cause of the fire is unknown, he said.

Backpackers have been barred from the 2,158m peak since 2004 to protect its biodiversity.

Several small religious groups that worship at caves and springs on its lower slopes continue to have access, though officials said there have been no reports of anyone being trapped in the fire.

Wildlife officials of the environment department said that 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 not documented by science until 2004.

However, they said they have 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 that despite access restrictions, forest rangers lacked the capability to track all the people who may be illegally entering the protected area.

“Most likely it was a manmade fire,” he said.

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

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 added.

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