April 20, 2024

Images and video footage of forest fires one after another from different areas in the Cordillera have hugged the limelight both on mainstream and social media. But unlike in earthquakes and super typhoons, the impact on people of forest fires is not as strongly felt nor heightened in reports.
For one, the government has not declared a state of calamity due to forest fires because human lives and properties are not involved.
On the local front, Baguio residents and tourists alike continue to witness how wildfires are ravaging portions of the Mount Sto. Tomas Forest Reserve in Tuba, Benguet since the start of February.
On the night of Feb. 20, the forest fire had almost reached the relay station where vital installations such as TV and radio transmitters, and towers of private and government offices are located.
The station was spared, thanks to the brave firefighters from the Bureau of Fire Protection and civilian volunteers who struggled to extinguish the flames that spread rapidly due to strong winds despite poor visibility.
The Tactical Operations Group 1 of the Philippine Air Force also played a major role in extinguishing forest fires in Benguet with its “heli-bucket” operations in Itogon town and this time in Tuba.
Forest fires have likewise been reported in Mountain Province and some parts of the region but from what we are hearing on the ground, these incidents are simply treated by some communities as yearly occurrences, especially that the country is now experiencing the dry spell brought about by the El Niño phenomenon.
Forest fires ravaged vast tracts of forest covers in this highland region in 2023. As shown by data of the Bureau of Fire Protection, forest fires in the Cordillera increased to 100 in 2023 from 41 in 2022. Grass fires also increased to 62 from 22 incidents in 2022.
But as we have observed in the past, the government is partly to be blamed on why forest fires are not widely considered an environmental disaster that merits the declaration of a state of calamity, owing to its limited definition that a disaster exists only if human lives and properties are involved.
Given Cordillera’s position as the watershed cradle of Luzon, this region can no longer afford to suffer environmental disasters due to fires that have caused havoc on hundreds of thousands of hectares of forest covers in past decades.
A decade ago, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources reported that the remaining forest cover of the Cordillera stood at only 36 percent out of the region’s total land area of 1.8 million hectares.
While most forest fires in the Cordillera have not claimed human lives nor destroyed properties, the destruction it leaves behind on the forest and ecosystem in general is immeasurable.
No amount of money can ever bring back a burned forest to its natural grandeur and its value to the environment and to human lives.
It’s time that the government corrects its limited view and definition of a disaster by including a series of forest fires as a parameter in declaring a state of calamity.