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May 6, 2020

Wildfires in the West – the Burning Continues!

For the past two weeks we have been reporting on a spate of forest fires across Belize. Many of those fires are concentrated in the western part of the country. While the Forest Department has a new law—with heavy fines attached—that prohibits burning outside, there are still many fires recorded around the country. This week, there were a number of fires off the hydro road, some two or so miles outside of Arenal. Those fires have been burning through farm lands, destroying crops and buildings that farmers have invested in. A group of Benque Viejo residents are trying to help, but as we found out today, it is no easy task. Here’s the story.


Andrea Polanco, Reporting

Seventy-five-year-old Benigno Vanegas is assessing the damage to his farm today. Two nights ago, wildfires reached his land. It wiped out most of his crops; other farming investments and housing material. It’s a loss that Vanegas couldn’t avoid because fires have been burning all around his property for several days. It’s the worst he has seen in the more than sixty years that he has been farming this land.


Benigno Vanegas

Benigno Vanegas, Farmer

“Well, here, fire has destroyed more than twenty-five acres of my land, yes. I didn’t have any help to control the fire, so I couldn’t put it out. So, we were only able to protect the ranch.”


…and that’s what this group of Benque Viejo residents has been trying to do – to protect the forests and farm lands in this area. But the impacts are trickling into the residential areas – with the smoke creating a haze over towns just a few miles away. But poor visibility is only one part of it – residents are also suffering in their homes from the smoke inhalation – making it a health issue, as well. And all these factors have pushed these volunteers to take action. Mario Hernandez of Benque is the team leader.


Mario Hernandez

Mario Hernandez, Resident, Benque Viejo del Carmen

“I got sad because I see a lot of smoke. The town is full of smoke. A lot of people have asthma. They can’t breathe and it is very bad because pollution will kill you. Maybe not now but in the long term it will affect your lungs. But this is sad because a lot of wildlife and green life is being wiped out completely. But Belize needs to control those fires.”


But these volunteers don’t have the proper equipment to tackle these big fires – just some basic tools like machetes, rakes and hand pumps, that they have been using to put out the flames and create fire breaks in the area for the past ten days. The fires move slowly on a regular day but when there is wind, it catches easily and moves rapidly. The dry vegetation and high temperatures increase the duration and number of fires. Hernandez and his volunteers know this first hand – he says it is a risky job to control these flames.


Mario Hernandez

“Fire is running slow, but it is wiping everything that’s in its way.”


Andrea Polanco

“What is it like to create a fire pass or trying to put out these flames?”


Mario Hernandez

“Some people might say it is easy making a fire line, but it is pretty hard because it is virgin jungle and people might have on the farm but they didn’t clean to the back of the farm. It is very dangerous and risky. You meet flames up to thirty-forty feet high. Trees are burning and sometimes you ask God help me. God is our only shield and our only protection because we don’t have special equipment. We don’t have anything; only machete, rake and that’s it and so God is our protector here.”


The thick smoke in the air makes it difficult to breathe and the heat from the land burning up makes it almost unbearable. Just about every area that has burnt through has hot spots, smoldering stumps and destroyed vegetation. While the impacts of these fires are yet to be fully quantified, Hernandez says that farmers alone have lost thousands of dollars – as he estimates that some three to four hundred acres have been ravaged by the flames.


Mario Hernandez

“Couple three hundred and fifty to four hundred acres of land have burnt in all the farms together. You can see these bushes, the mountain back here, maybe one fourth of it is alive and three fourths of it has been burnt. This guy owned a hundred acres and maybe that hundred acres gone- and so when you start to count and estimate everything it is a lot of acres that have been burnt. A lot of pastures have been lost; farmers have lost their plantations; guys have lost their little houses; guys have lost their fences; everything. It is very sad; very, very sad.”


Hernandez and his team will continue to put out fires and create fire-lines in the area. They are looking for volunteers who can assist on the ground and others who can donate equipment and other materials. Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.


We’ll have more from today’s trip in our newscast on Thursday night. In the meantime, if you can help the residents, they are looking for volunteers and other forms of help, you can call Mario Hernandez at 624-4660.

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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