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Fire Management

Fires have existed on the face of the planet from its origin. For billions of years, fire was one of the most influential factors in shaping the vegetation that covers our planet. They used to occur naturally, particularly as a result of active volcanoes and lightning bolts that hit the ground during seasonal storms. However, since man discovered fire, fires have become much more frequent and they have begun to change farmlands and other areas inhabited by human societies in a drastic way.

In modern times, fires have become very common due to human action. In fact, humans have become the leading cause of fires in the world, surpassing natural factors, such as lightning. Often, people light fires, either intentionally or accidentally, thereby disrupting the environment. Every day we burn large areas of natural forests, brushwood, savannas, prairies and semi-deserts. Rural areas and even urban areas are also susceptible to the effects of fire: considerable expanses of agricultural land, forest plantations, cattle plains and areas inhabited by human populations are burned regularly. Each year we receive more news reports of large forest fires, especially in Mediterranean environments which are characterized by cold, rainy winters and dry and very warm summers, such as those in California, Spain, Greece or Australia.

We often hear of uncontrolled wildfires of an unimaginable magnitude which burn down thousands of hectares of tropical rainforest –which in the past, were very resistant to fire-, in countries such as Indonesia or Brazil. According to a recent study developed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC), in collaboration with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and scientists from all over the world, the fires of 1997 and 1998 in Southeast Asia burned more than 9.7 million hectares, which resulted in a loss of US$10 billion and severely damaged many fire-sensitive tropical forests in protected areas. Indonesia was ranked in the highest category for production of greenhouse gases worldwide. Thus, the health of more than 100 million people was affected. More recently still, experts on this issue have estimated that each year an area equivalent to half of China is burned down worldwide.

Forest Fires in the Dominican Republic
Integrated Fire Management
Fire administration and management in the Dominican Republic

Forest Fires in the Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic is another country that is greatly affected by forest fires almost on a yearly basis. Indeed, it is considered that these fires are the main threat to the country's forests, as well as to the native plants and animals that inhabit them. Most of these fires are of anthropogenic origin, often produced intentionally for agricultural and livestock purposes. The month of March and the period between June and September, which are the driest times of the year, are the two seasons when forest fires happen more frequently. Some government studies report that during the past 10 years, there have been 30 fires per year on average. The regions which are affected the most are the Dominican Cordillera Central, Sierra de Bahoruco, Sierra de Neyba, and the San Jose de las Matas, Monción and Restauración areas. In February of 1983, for example, during a serious drought that lasted for several months, there was a large forest fire in Valle Nuevo, Constanza, which caused the loss of 32 million square meters of pine forests.

As a result of these devastating fires, plants and animals are burned, the air and rivers are polluted, there is loss of species, the ecosystems become unbalanced and human health is threatened. Finally, environmental services such as drinking water and forest carbon are degraded, harvests of staple crops are lost, homes are destroyed and humans are killed. The cost of these damages is huge for both nature and society. The burning of large quantities of vegetation, for example, results in massive emissions of carbon to the atmosphere, which raise the concentration of greenhouse gases, thus increasing the problem of global warming and climate change that it entails.

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Integrated Fire Management

Given the magnitude of this problem, it is crucial that human populations pay close attention to the management of forest fires around the world in a coherent and integrated manner which focuses on the ecosystem. It must be understood that there are some ecosystems that burn naturally and with some frequency. For these ecosystems that are fire-dependent, natural fires are a part of their life cycle, and are beneficial for their performance. In fact, there are many species of plants with adaptations that allow them to survive or take advantage of fire. On the other hand, we must realize that there are many fragile ecosystems that, through the ages, have not adapted to fire. They are ecological systems that suffer irrevocable loss to their composition, when there is a significant fire caused by humans.

The concept of integrated forest fire management (IFFM), as described by agencies such as the International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) and TNC, goes far beyond conventional strategies for preventing and extinguishing fires. It incorporates planned actions such as controlled or prescribed burnings, community involvement, and law enforcement. Regarding the implementation of such integrated management plans, several NGOs such as TNC, IUCN and WWF believe that the key to success is to distinguish the actions that fall upon each group of social participants: local communities, governments and scientists. They suggest that communities adopt a turnkey approach to ecological fire management, document the ecosystem dynamics related to fire, evaluate the traditional use of fire, set goals for the ecosystem, identify and address the underlying causes of altered fire regulations, integrate cultural and economic issues, and develop capacities for fire management. Governments, meanwhile, should ensure the equitable distribution of fire costs and benefits, recognize the rights of the community to use fire, eliminate negative incentives related to fires, invest in fire science, management and education, and develop fire management capabilities at the local and national levels. Finally, scientists should conduct research to expand scientific understanding of fire and biodiversity regulations, clarify the causes of altered fire regimes, follow-up at the local, regional and global levels, investigate the complex relationships between fire, climate change, land use and invasive alien species, and, finally, assess and predict the ecological consequences of the proposed strategies.

In recent years, programs of integrated fire management have been developed for natural protected areas in many Latin American countries. Some examples are the programs of the Biosphere Reserves -the Manantlán Mountain Range and the Ocote Forest- in Mexico; the Lacandon National Park and the Biosphere Reserve of the Las Minas Mountain Range in Guatemala; the bi-national Biosphere Reserve La Amistad in Costa Rica and Panama; and the Natural Protected Area of Machu Picchu in Peru.

Elsewhere, several Caribbean island-nations have paid more attention to the establishment and implementation of integrated fire management programs. Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago are the only countries to exercise fire supervision. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), over the period from 2000 thru 2003, the average number of fires ranged from 140 to 325 per year and the area burned ranged from 4,000 to 5,000 hectares per year.

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Fire administration and management in the Dominican Republic

In the Dominican Republic, a comprehensive analysis of the issue of forest fires in the Juan Bautista Perez Rancier National Park began in 2004. As a first step, an ecological model of the situation in the park was developed. Next, an integrated strategy to tackle the problem of fires within the park was launched. Subsequently, suggestions were outlined for the implementation of a community-based fire management. And finally, a set of recommendations for scientific research was established, in order to inform decisions made within a future framework for adaptive management at a programmatic level.

In early 2009, the Government of the Dominican Republic began an intensive educational campaign on forest fires in the country and launched its new "National Strategy for Fire Administration and Management in the Dominican Republic." At the start of the campaign, the Secretary for the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARENA), Dr. Jaime David Fernández Mirabal reiterated that burning forests is a criminal act, that forest fires cause severe damage to nature, and that fire management should be of national concern. In fact, Article 434 of the country’s Penal Code establishes that offenders that cause forest fires can receive between two and 10 years in prison and pay between RD $1,000 and RD$10,000 in fines.

As part of its strategy to reduce the number of forest fires in the Dominican Republic, the government has begun to work together with private institutions and international organizations in developing and implementing a national plan for comprehensive fire management, with emphasis on the prevention and contingency of forest fires. One of the elements of the plan is the establishment of institutional agreements and the enhancement of rural fire control capabilities, including large intentional fire burnings for agricultural purposes. To that end, the government currently has 500 forest fire fighters and some 2,000 people forming fire brigades, many of whom have been trained by the Army. Similarly, the SEMARENA and the Association of Guides of the Pico Diego de Ocampo have taught courses in forest fire fighting in order to prepare young volunteers from communities around the protected areas on methods and contingency measures in case of wildfires, as well as in their prevention.

A second component is to set up observation towers and forest fire monitoring stations throughout the country. Currently, there are 55 stations and 11 towers, including those that were recently installed with financial support from the European Union in the communities of El Tetero, in the province of Dajabón, and Padre Las Casas, in Azua. Another line of action is the management of forestry information, which is coordinated nationally by the Forestry Department (Dirección General Forestal), which manages and analyzes statistical data related to the presence of forest and agricultural fires in the country. Finally, since 2004, training programs on prescribed fires are taking place, seeking to complement traditional management practices in order to reduce the amount of forest fuel, among other things. Now, the development of criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management included in technical regulations will be a key step in the success of all these critical components of the national plan for the integrated management of fires in the Dominican Republic.

According to the National Fire Coordination of the Dominican Republic, the new concept of "fire administration and management" should reflect a set of standards and systematized procedures intended to prevent, mitigate, monitor and investigate forest fires and the use of fire, as well as determine its impact and rehabilitate affected areas, taking into account the cultural environment. The goals are:

a) establish standards for the implementation of prescribed burnings in agricultural and livestock farms and forests; b) promote actions to reduce the risk of forest fires and their impact on the most vulnerable areas; c) implement operational plans to reduce fuel in the most vulnerable areas; d) strengthen technical and scientific research on fire management, and e) establish, as a national policy, research in fire management, which involves the processes of assessment, promotion, incentives and budget, promoting the construction of knowledge for decision-making.

With these processes of awareness, education, collaboration, research, training, prevention, control and co-management, the country is expected to be well prepared to face the problem of forest fires in an integrated manner and in conjunction with the various national, regional and local actors, so as to conserve the rich biodiversity of the country's fragile habitats, and the environmental services they offer to the Dominican people, and to contribute to their long-term welfare.

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