COTABATO CITY (MindaNews / 30 March) – Three unidentified mountain climbers who stayed at the peak of the country’s highest mountain were believed to be responsible in the bush fire that escalated into a forest fire at Mt. Apo, according to a group of bikers and trekkers from Cotabato City who witnessed the start of the fire from a distance.
Members of the Cotabato All-Terrain Bikers Association (CATBA) said they believed the fire actually started at the peak where there were three campers who cooked food on Saturday afternoon.
Tutin Sapto, CATBA founding member, said he personally witnessed the start of the unfortunate incident and took pictures from afar after they set up tent in the lower portion of Lake Venado.
“We were told there were three climbers who set up tent at the peak and cooked and left not knowing there was still fire,” Sapto recalled being told by other mountaineers.
Sapto said he and his colleagues expressed desire to help put out the fire, “but we were prevented from going there. We panicked and in dismay while watching the fire eating up a large portion of the peak,” he said.
“Instead, we were directed to use the Mandarangan trail as our exit route as the fire started to spread,” he added
Sapto said his team of 24 climbers used the Kapatagan trail in Digos City, Davao del Sur in climbing Mt. Apo. They arrived at a camp on the Kapatagan side of the mountain in the afternoon of Good Friday and slept there, then climbed to the peak before dawn on Saturday so they could witness the sunrise.
As part of every mountaineer’s tradition who climbs Mt. Apo, the group went down to Lake Venado on the other side of the peak Saturday afternoon to set up tents.
Lake Venado is the recognized site by the Department of Tourism and Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) as desired camping site due to the availability of water, installed facilities for sanitation concerns and safeguard from strong wind and extremely cold condition at night.
And then they noticed smoke billowing from the peak of Mt. Apo a few hours after they left the area.
Sapto said that they were scheduled to leave the next morning, on Easter Sunday. They were supposed to climb back to the peak, then follow their trail back to Kapatagan where they started their climb, because policy requires that mountaineers should exit where they began their climb.
But because of the fire, they were told by climbing guides that they should divert their route and exit immediately through the Mandarangan trail in the Kidapawan-Makilala-Magpet eco-triangle.
Joey Recemilla, Kidapawan Tourism officer and chair of the EcoTourism Committee of the Mt. Apo Natural Park – Protected Area Management Board, said when there is a reported fire, protocol requires all climbers to take the nearest and safest entry, which in last Saturday’s case was via Kidapawan.
“To be honest, when we were at the peak, the surrounding was really dry and brown, although occasionally there were fogs,” Sapto said.
He said the fire from the peak has spread toward Digos City side of the mountain heading toward Kapatagan trail.
“How sad some climbers were irresponsible and were not careful in their acts. Climbing should be accompanied by responsibility,” Sapto lamented.
More than 300 hectares have already been eaten by fire as of Wednesday in a large swathe of the eco-park and is now starting to engulf a watershed area in the Talomo District in Davao City.
Firefighters from Davao City’s Central 911 and volunteers from nearby towns surrounding the highest mountain have trooped to the area, and the Philippine Air Force sent equipment and personnel and immediately initiated efforts, but the efforts are apparently still not enough due to the huge extent of the fire and the very dry situation because of the prolonged drought that could easily help escalate the fire.