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May 9, 2011

Wildfire in Mountain Pine Ridge wreaking havoc

Thousands of acres of forests have been consumed by wild fires, and much more are at risk before the rains come pouring down. Hot weather conditions are the fuel to the fires that are erupting and spreading across the country. Close to thirty thousand acres of forest have been ravaged in Mountain Pine Ridge; a protected area which also boasts a number of eco-friendly resorts.  Over the weekend, News Five’s Isani Cayetano headed to the area where the smoky haze is covering much of the reserve.

The rolling landscape of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve is a panorama of earth tones stretching as far as the eyes can see in any direction.  It’s an infinite terrain covered entirely by evergreen trees established as a protected area in 1944.  The expanse is home to a number of natural and man-made wonders including Five Sisters Falls and the ancient city of Caracol.  Its geography of roughly a hundred thousand acres as well as its steep elevations makes for an erratic climate.

Today is sweltering.  The air is thin and the temperature is easily a hundred degrees.  Coupled with the oppressive heat is the sharp smell of burning timber.  The pine ridge is on fire and the occasional gust of wind is working in favor of its flames.

George Headley, Managing Director, Bull Run Overseas

“It’s been very tough for the last month.  We’ve had lots of fire up this side and we’ve had horrible winds.  You can feel a little bit of it now.  We’ve had very strong winds and so that’s made fighting fire up here very difficult.”

George Headley

George Headley is one of few land owners whose property is being affected.  His spread is approximately twelve thousand acres.  Plumes of smoke blanket the treetops inching toward the heavens above.  The brushfire in this area has consumed a great deal of land within the reserve.

George Headley

“In terms of size I’m thinking we’re right at thirty thousand acres between us and the national forest of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve up here.  I’d say in excess of thirty thousand acres.”

That’s the equivalent of almost forty-five square miles.  To partially assess the damage the conflagration has caused Headley recently joined a crew of airmen from BATSUB on an aerial reconnaissance mission.

George Headley

“The Caribbean pine up here is very tough with fire and we’re really not going to know how much damage was done probably until a couple of months after the rains come and then we can go around and we can see.  Some places it’s obvious we lost trees.  Other places it’s obvious we didn’t and then there’s a whole bunch in the middle.  We’ll know it in a few months.”

On the ground George and I traverse by Land Rover.  What we see are small patches of fire scattered across the hilly estate.

George Headley

“The trick here is to try and get a fire under controlled conditions.  You know, in the spring or in the autumn where it’s still damp, there’s not a lot of wind and not a lot of heat [and] we don’t have hundred degree days and so it will burn cool and it will get all the fuel out of there without doing a lot of damage.  So you want to try, if you can, to burn every piece of acreage at least once every five years to keep the fuel under control.”

Isani Cayetano

Isani Cayetano

“In the heart of the Mountain Pine Ridge is an ecosystem that’s very much alive with flora.  But while there is a wealth of pine trees there is also an abundance of tiger fern, the fuel for most of the wildfires that occur in this part of the woods.”

George Headley

“These are the two primary things that burn in the pine ridge.  This is something we call dumb cane which burns quite hot and then this is our real trouble.  This is what causes the fire to go from one place to the next.  This is tiger bush and it grows, each year it grows more and more fuel under there so if you look in here you can see all of this dead stuff from years and years past.  This is about ten years’ worth of tiger bush and when you get this on fire a lot of this will fly up in the air and go with the wind and start the fire.  That’s how the fire moves, it’s burning ash and burning pieces from all of this.  So that’s what burned.”

The movement of the fire is largely the result of shifting wind patterns.  In some cases it managed to skip entire bodies of water.

George Headley

“The fire was hot enough that it actually was able, the wind was able to carry it right over the top of this little lake here.  So your viewers can imagine how hard it is to stop the fire when it can move five hundred yards in a shot with this kind of wind.”

There are different theories on how it all began including that of military activity in the area.

George Headley

“We have some concerns that military training out in the east, in the Bald Hills, flares or tracers or even cook fires might [very] well have started that set.  For years we had trouble with the British army’s training in April and May but they’ve actually, over the last five years, been extremely good neighbors with us and have worked to put bans on all of that sort of thing.  But it’s possible that some of the training a month ago set the fires.  It was a BDF exercise up there a month ago [so] it’s possible.”

Regardless of its source the bonfire has presented difficulty for resort owners as wells as forest rangers.  Observation posts climbing skyward some sixty feet have been erected to keep an eye on proximity.

Isani Cayetano

“This is one of several watchtowers where officials from the Forestry Department come to get a vantage point and a specific view of where the fire in the Mountain Pine Ridge area has spread.”

Thereafter controlling the blaze requires skill.  Instead of quelling the soaring blaze with powerful jets of water fire is fought with fire.

George Headley

“What you’ll do is you’ll get normally downwind of the fire and you’ll take a bulldozer and you’ll go through the bush and you’ll take a torch that drips a mixture of gasoline and diesel along there and you will let the fire run up into the other fire and it will put itself out where it meets in the middle.”

Over the past few weeks Headley and his neighbors at Blancaneaux Lodge and Hidden Valley Resort have invested time and money tackling the problem.

George Headley

“We’ve had five fires in sort of a two, two week stretches that were sort of different.  The first one the whole community was able to come together and help each other in various places.  The second half it sort of overwhelmed everybody because the lightening from last week started about fourteen fires simultaneously and overwhelmed us.  So as a community we were able to come together and save everybody’s businesses from burning.  Several of them got very, very close but it had much more of an impact on the resorts because all of them had to evacuate at least once if not twice which caused all sorts of chaos.  As you can imagine revenue and guest satisfaction and all of that sort of thing.”

…and the looming threat of wildfire and its devastating impact on the magnificence around has indeed put a damper on ecotourism in Mountain Pine Ridge. Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano.

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Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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6 Responses for “Wildfire in Mountain Pine Ridge wreaking havoc”

  1. I Have Awaken says:

    What interests me is not the forest fire–Mother Earth will heal herself in a matter of months—but, I am interested in why this gentleman, Headley, is able to own so much land in the Jewel, when born Belizeans, seem to find it almost impossible to get a single lot? Amazing what we tolerate as Belizeans, amazing, indeed. WAKE UP PEOPLE!

  2. MADDYVANDIJKDEREALISTO says:

    Irresponsible land management can create circumstances that are perfect or efficient for intense wildfires such as this one to occur, so when you have conducted a proper investigation into the definition of this so call (wildfire) that may or may not have been caused by the military training then by all means hold those entirely responsible for their destruction of that area.

    (Let’s play the blame game) Don’t forget the BDF who also benefited from trainings in those areas, along with possible friction of trees and spontaneous combustion, high temperatures etc.

    Vote no for “Oil Drilling”.

  3. BelizeanBway says:

    I have awaken, what you surprised about about? Anyone can own land in most countries of the world once they have the capital to purchase.

    WHAT? You hate the people that can afford? Most Belizeans never own because they spend more time hating on people than finding ways of making a descent living. Its time to be more ambitious!

    You wanna buy land? Go by Armenia in the Cayo District and buy as much acres as you want. 1500-2000 per acre. Nothing comes free!

  4. John says:

    As an American-Belizean, I will avoid the politics of land ownership in the Jewel. What I have learned over the years is what the US Forest Service has learned: Forest fires are Nature’s way of cleaning up the forests.

    For true, the US Forest Service has spent a fortune over the years trying to prevent forest fires only too learn that in the process, they have left behind so much lower bush, weeds etc. that when the inevitable fire came, it was beyond anything that Nature would have provided without their intervention.

    In a pine ridge, a fire does 2 things: it allows pine seed to pop its cones and start & it forestalls spread of the broadleaf forest.

    Granted, the Forestry Department has limited funds at it’s disposal. An organized plan of controlled burns as needed would eliminate the threat of uncontrolled wildfires as we are now seeing. It would behoove the government to give a bit more to the Forestry Department to do their job.

    For more information, google the National Geographic Society & forest fires

  5. mustard says:

    well, i think mr. headly has been here a long long time and he was going growing macadamia and teak, the man been here long time. and so what if he has acres and acres. duh, what you gonna do wid it?

  6. I Have Awaken says:

    BelizeanBway; you completely missed the point, as so many Belizeans these days. I send light and love from the Creator. WAKE UP PEOPLE!

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