KAPATAGAN, Digos City, Davao del Sur (MindaNews / 28 March) – The still raging forest fire in the country’s highest peak, Mt. Apo, started as a grassfire at the common camping area at the peak Saturday noon when most of the climbers had gone down from the Holy Week trek, Digos City tourism officer Edgardo “Bebot” Elera said.
Elera told MindaNews that members of the city’s monitoring team who were at the peak tried to put out the fire but it quickly spread as the grasses had dried up due to the drought.
Photo of fire Monday afternoon, two days after it started at the peak of Mt. Apo, the country’s highest peak. Photo courtesy of Philippine Air Force Tactical Operations Group 11 and 305th Air Intelligence Service Squadron
“We cannot say kung accident or deliberate.. Maybe somebody threw a cigarette butt,” he said. But he maintained that the local government units had not been remiss in reminding trekkers especially since there is already a unified trekking policy approved by the Mt. Apo Natural Park – Protected Area Management Board (MANP-PAMB) last year and implemented in the Digos, Sta. Cruz and Bansalan trails in Davao del Sur and Kidapawan, Makilala and Magpet trails in North Cotabato.
“Masyadong mataas ang possibility” (there’s a very high possibility) that trekkers caused the fire, Joey Recemilla, Kidapawan Tourism Officer and chair of the Ecotourism Committee of the Protected Area Management Board (PAMB) told MindaNews in a telephone interview late Sunday night.
He said the Holy Week trek, like last year’s, was limited to only 1,000 climbers for all six trails because of the drought but in last week’s climb, the number of climbers exceeded the quota for some trails.
Comprising 54,974.87 hectares, Mt. Apo Natural Park is one of the Key Biodiversity Areas of the country. Mt. Apo, which has an elevation of 9,692 feet (2,954 meters above sea level), is classified by the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs) as a “potentially active” volcano.
Maj Ezra Balagtey, OIC of the Public Information Office of the Eastern Mindanao Command (EastMinCom) said a Cessna plane from the Aero Scout Company , Light Armor Division of the Philippine Army, with personnel from the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (PDRRMC) flew to the area at 10 a.m. to conduct a Rapid Damage Need Assessment.
Balagtey’s press statement said “initially large portion of the fire (was) within the side of North Cotabato” but as of 5 p.m., the PDRRMC North Cotabato had reported that fire lines or firebreaks had been established to control the fire and “large portion of fire is now within the side of Talomo mountain range and Davao Sur area.”
Lt. Gen. Rey Leonardo Guerrero, chief of the Eastern Mindanao Command told MindaNews in a text message Monday afternoon that a Super Huey helicopter arrived from Cebu at 2:35 p.m and left Davao City at 3:59 p.m. for survey and subsequent bucket operations in Mt. Apo.
He said the helicopter “arrived only today because it was also on a mission to put out a forest fire at Mt. Kanlaon in Negros.”
Inspector Donald Concepcion of the Bureau of Fire Protection in Digos City, the Incident Commander here, informed Elera at noon that the BFP in North Cotabato had already reported “fire out” in the Kidapawan-Makilala-Magpet side of Mt. Apo.
On hearing the news, Elera told MindaNews that Digos City is “safe na” (safe now).
He said they are protected from the fire by the boulders of the Digos City trail. But the fire, according to reports reaching Elera, had spread towards Sta. Cruz and the Mt. Talomo on the Davao City side.
He also took exception to reports that climbers were “evacuated” from Mt. Apo. He reiterated that by Saturday noon, most of the climbers had gone down from the peak.
Recemilla said part of the trekking policy is that if a fire is reported, climbers must immediately take the nearest and safest exit, which in this case last Saturday was the Kidapawan trail.
A total of 441 had gone down from Mt. Apo as of Sunday via Kidapawan City, he said. Out of this number, 379 had climbed from the Davao del Sur side to reach the peak.
Firefighters, mountaineers and other volunteers have flocked to the covered court behind the barangay hall here, awaiting deployment to the site where they are expected to make fire lines or firebreaks to stop the spread of fire.
A truckload of volunteers was set to proceed to the Paradise area at around 2 p.m. but Inspector Donald Concepcion of the Bureau of Fire Protection in Digos City, the Incident Commander, held their departure following reports that Paradise may not be the best staging area.
Rye Glen Trinidad, head of the Mindanao Mountaineers Federation (in khaki polo) briefs members of the Bureau of Fire Protection on the Mount Apo trails in Barangay Kapatagan, Davao del Sur on Monday, March 28, 2016. The fire started at the peak last Saturday afternoon. MindaNews photo by TOTO LOZANO
Concepcion said it would be best to check with the Philippine Air Force on their aerial survey and await reports from the two teams that had gone up to Paradise area and Sta. Cruz area to check on the fire.
Rye Glen Trinidad, head of the Mindanao Mountaineering Foundation, gave Concepcion and his team a briefing on the Mt. Apo trails.
At 40, Concepcion has climbed Mt. Apo 56 times .
Century Tree Trail
On the map, Trinidad pointed to the area where the century trees are and said it was important that fire lines be set up to prevent the fire from reaching the century trees.
A century tree in this photo taken two weeks before fire broke out at the peak of Mt. Apo. MindaNews photo courtesy of KIM FRANCIS PENTIN
He said the trees are huge – it would take from eight to 10 persons to encircle their trunks – and tall at around 300 feet high.
Trinidad said he sees no problem in getting assistance from volunteers as mountaineers from Zamboanga, Iligan and Cagayan have signified their intention to help.
Trinidad said he hopes the fire is contained as the direction of the fire was towards Mt. Talomo, a nesting site of the critically endangered Philippine Eagle, the national bird. (Carolyn O. Arguillas / MindaNews)