Mt. Apo closed to climbers indefinitely

BARANGAY KAPATAGAN, Digos City (MindaNews / 31 March) – The country’s highest peak will be off limits to climbers after the Mt. Apo Natural Park – Protected Area Management Board (MANP-PANB) approved a resolution on Thursday, closing Mt. Apo for an indefinite period.

The resolution came after a massive fire razed several hectares of the peak of Mt. Apo, which started at 1 p.m. on Saturday and has since spread to other adjacent parts of the mountain for the last few days.

In an interview on Thursday at the Incident Command Post in Brgy. Kapatagan in Digos City, Harry Camoro, head of the Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (PDRRMC) Davao del Sur, said the MANP-PAMB meeting was attended by directors of concerned agencies such as Joselin Marcus Fragada of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) 11, Robert Alabado III of Department of Tourism (DOT) 11, and Liza Mazo of the Office of the Civil Defense (OCD) 11.

Camoro said a representative of North Cotabato Gov. Lala Taliño was also present during the meeting who brought the latter’s suggestion to the board that the Mt. Apo be closed indefinitely to trekkers until it recovers itself in all six trails in Kidapawan, Makilala, and Magpet in North Cotabato, Digos, Sta. Cruz, and Bansalan in Davao del Sur.

Asked if Mt. Apo will be reopened after it recovers, Camoro said, “I don’t think so. Baka totohanan, sabi nila baka forever.”

Sta. Cruz Tourism Officer Julius Paner, in a phone interview, told MindaNews that they welcome the decision of the board to indefinitely close Mt. Apo from tourists.

“[After what happened] Mt. Apo needs it. We are a bit happy even if it will have a major impact on our tourism industry,” he said.

Paner was quick to add that the unfortunate incident will also be an opportunity to develop other tourism offerings to visitors in the municipality.

Aside from mountaineering that will be stopped, the municipality has waterfalls, hot-springs, and bird watching that can be experienced by the visitors, he said.

Paner said the Mt. Apo Boulder Face Challenge, a major highlight in this year’s Visit Davao Fun Sale, will have to be postponed. Around 50 runners are supposed to scale up the country’s highest peak within 24 hours on April 23 to 24.

“It’s also inappropriate if we push through with the activity after the incident,” he said.

Camoro said a lot of bookings for April have already been cancelled.

Fire rekindled

Camoro said that the responders were successful in containing the fire within its target area on Wednesday, but at around 2:00 a.m. on Thursday, another blaze was rekindled from a headfire at the sulphur vent in the Sta. Cruz side that was cooled off two days ago.

As of Thursday afternoon, he said the responders could not determine whether the situation worsened due to zero visibility while the number of hectares affected can only be determined after the fire. Reports said estimate was placed at 350 hectares of forest lands being engulfed by the fire.

Other parts of the affected areas have been contained already by setting up firelines, he said, adding that the fire is no longer advancing towards adjacent Mt. Talomo in Davao City, which is home to endangered Philippine eagles.

Camoro said they are hoping to come up with a better strategy out of the regular operational briefing to be held Thursday evening based on the initial assessment.

He said there are 283 volunteers who have so far been deployed. Different local government units from North Cotabato have also pledged to support the operations in terms of manpower and logistics.

The official said that the Eastern Mindanao Command (EastMinCom) will request for another helicopter from the Philippine Air Force that will replace the Bell UH-1Y Venon, or the Super Huey, which arrived in Davao City on Monday afternoon and has since been used to do the aerial operations, which included reconnaissance and helicopter bucket to put out the fire.

Camoro said the helicopter is nearing its flying limit and might stop operating tomorrow.

In a phone interview, Maj. Ezra Balagtey, officer-in-charge (OIC) of EastMinCom’s Public Information Office, told MindaNews that they have already requested on Thursday for another chopper, still a Super Huey. If approved by the PAF central office by evening of same day, he said it might be on its way to Davao Region by Friday.

At 2 p.m., the existing Super Huey landed at the vast ground of Rizal Central Elementary School when they could no longer pursue the aerial operation after the sky became cloudy and gustiness of the wind grew stronger that afternoon.

Maj. Salvador C. Dee Jr., pilot of Super Huey 122 and member of the Search and Rescue Group of PAF, told MindaNews said that starting around 6:30 a.m. they had delivered seven buckets of water drawn from Lake Mirror of Mt. Apo Highland Resort, owned by businessman Philip Sonny Dizon. Each bucket can hold about 600 to 1,000 liters.

“We have to stop kasi nga close ang window namin. Naka-deliver kami pero kinain kami ng clouds. Bumalik kami para mag-gas up kasi medyo depleted na rin ang fuel namin,” he said. “We delivered supplies and equipment such as generator, pala, bolo to the basecamp in Tompis,” Dee said.

Last Tuesday, the Super Huey poured about 10 buckets, with water sourced from Lake Cometa but Dee said it was very shallow, about waist-deep, that they have to get water from Lake Mirror.

However, Lake Mirror is surrounded with trees, powerlines, houses, and flying animals. He said helicopters approach and path should be clear as much as possible but none of which are unmanageable.

Dee said they are flying 7,000 to 8,500 feet above the burning treetops before pouring the buckets of water.

“Last night (Wednesday), ang naging limitiations are the wind, malakas ang gustiness. This probably rekindled the fire… Pero matitigil yung fire kasi walang vegetation doon,” he said.

What is alarming is if the fire has reached the tree lines, which Dee described as “kahapon green na green pagdating kaninang umaga brown na brown.”

He said if any of the century trees have been gutted by the fire as they could hardly see the view below due to the think smoke.

“As long as kaya, kung pasok sa wind limitation, wala kaming sinasayang na oras. We know the urgency kung hindi matitigil yun, ma-spread talaga.