Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean
Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Fires in Cuba
Forest Fires in Cuba
Beyond a doubt, forest fires are among the natural and man-made disasters that most damage Cubas economy and its environment. The systematic state-sponsored efforts to maintain and increase the islands forest cover, based on the Cuban governments full understanding of the global implications of deforestation, are well known. And yet every year forest fires still devastate hundreds of hectares of forest that will take decades to recover.
Ever since 1998, when
the National Peoples Assembly passed the Forestry Law, Cuba has
taken firm steps towards the institutionalization of measures aimed at
dealing with this problem. The State Forestry Service (SEF) of the Ministry
of Agriculture (MINAG) was created as the body entrusted with the authority
and resources to enforce the laws that protect the countrys forest
assets. Two different kinds of government companies, Integral Forestry
Enterprises and Flora and Fauna Enterprises, also part of MINAG, are in
charge of the rational exploitation and care of forests; the former are
also in charge of reforestation, and the latter of managing fragile ecosystems
or areas of high environmental value. Meanwhile, the Forest Rangers Corps
of the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) is directly responsible for fighting
forest fires; the Corps technical resources will soon be reinforced
thanks to a cooperation agreement with the United Nations Environment
Program (UNEP). In the case of severe fires, MININTs Firefighters
Department and MINAGs Agricultural Aviation Department can also
help. So may other government bodies at the request of the Defense Councils
that, depending on the magnitude of the disaster, are activated at the
municipal or provincial level. The Ministry of Science, Technology and
the Environment (CITMA) also plays a role in this strategic effort.
As a rule, forest fires do not start directly in the thick of the woods; they almost always originate in herbaceous savannahs often close to roads, or in low-density forests with a dense undergrowth. Similarly, the first indications of a forest fire are often detected in scrubland; from there, the wind propagates the fire towards areas with larger trees. A forest fire may start in any of these areas, as long as there is a physical cause or focus of combustion. The chief cause of forest fires is negligence in complying with the laws against forest fires. Natural causes, such as electrical storms igniting the brush, are much rarer.
In Cuba, by and large,
the time of year in which there are more forest fires is from February
to April, with an increase during the summer months if the so-called spring
rains do not make their appearance. Based on studies and analyses of forest
fires and their causes, certain high-risk regions, smaller areas, and
even specific forests have been identified.
It should be pointed out that in fighting these disasters it is not always possible to employ the means normally used to fight fires in more accessible areas. The absence of highways or even passable roads, difficulties in getting water to the wildfire area, and the remoteness of special firefighting equipment are the main reasons aviation is currently used extensively in Cuba to fight forest fires. Moreover, access to GPS data makes it possible to detect forest fires remotely at an early stage.
It is clear that of all the measures available to fight forest fires, prevention is the most valuable and cost-effective. Every year in November, before the start of the dry season, the National Campaign Against Forest Fires gets underway.
During the Campaign, combined teams of MININT personnel, officials from other bodies, and community members carry out firefighting drills. Education is also emphasized, as is the application of measures to eliminate conditions favorable to the start of a fire. In addition, the contingency plans of all relevant bodies are periodically reviewed and updated.
In spite of all these actions, the impact of forest fires is still considerable. For instance, the Isle of Youth (Isla de la Juventud), 52% of which is covered by forests, suffers from an average of 50 fires a year. In 2000 alone, 62 fires took place, causing losses worth 60,000 pesos.
Camagüey, the largest province in the country, is also one of the most deforested, as a result of its many sugarcane plantations and cattle farms. However, it is also one of the provinces most prone to forest fires.
A recent example was the great fire in the San Felipe Mountain Range, site of the third large pine forest in the country. Between 31 March and 6 April, 1,486 hectares in two municipalities were affected. Of that area, 909 hectares were covered in pines, of which 81 were completely lost. The joint effort of many provincial bodies was required to put out one of the greatest conflagrations in the history of Camagüey.
Evidently, higher education can play a key role in reducing the impact of forest fires. In Cuba, students of Forest Engineering and other careers have to take Defense Preparedness Courses in coordination with specialized agencies to make sure that future professionals can do their part in the fight against forest fires and other disasters.