International Strategy for Disaster Reduction
Latin America and the Caribbean   

Newsletter ISDR Inform - Latin America and the Caribbean
Issue: 13/2006- 12/2006 - 11/2005 - 10/2005 - 9/2004 - 8/2003 - 7/2003 - 6/2002 - 5/2002 - 4/2001- 3/2001



Forest Fires in Cuba
Eduardo U. Leal Acosta, Civil Engineer Head of the Department of Defense Preparedness of the School of Civil Engineering Construction Faculty, University of CamagŁey,

The chief causes of forest fires in Cuba are examined, as are the measures currently applied to prevent them or minimize their devastating effects. In addition, general measures to be adopted during a fire are discussed, and information is provided on the handling of this problem in Cuba.

Forest Fires in Cuba

Beyond a doubt, forest fires are among the natural and man-made disasters that most damage Cuba’s economy and its environment. The systematic state-sponsored efforts to maintain and increase the island’s forest cover, based on the Cuban government’s 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 People’s 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 country’s 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, MININT’s Firefighters Department and MINAG’s 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.

Chief Causes of Forest Fires

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.
The measures that must be taken to fight fires in forests and savannahs fall into two major groups: prevention and response.

Preventive Measures

  1. Identify the areas at risk, classify them according to their characteristics, vulnerability and historical behavior, and include them in risk maps.
  2. Define the best location for setting up observation posts, based on risk assessments and the characteristics of the terrain, and provide them with efficient means of communicating among themselves, with the Forest Rangers headquarters, and with any other relevant civilian and military bodies that collaborate in forest conservation.
  3. Identify all water sources in the territories at risk, including those that must be used to supply air tankers.
  4. Identify the best locations for fire trenches to limit flame propagation, and proceed to dig them.
  5. Install telemetric fire detection equipment.
  6. Educate the population, particularly those who live in rural communities close to or within forested areas, as well as camping and hiking groups.
  7. Train specialized groups in preventive and firefighting activities.
  8. Organize an air surveillance system over high-risk areas during the periods of greater vulnerability.

Response Measures

  1. Identify the focus of the fire as quickly as possible and warn the forces that are best positioned to begin fighting it the soonest.
  2. Render operational all the forces and resources needed to fight forest fires in the area.
  3. Monitor the direction, speed and humidity of the wind and, based on the latest weather reports, prepare forecasts of the evolution of the fire in the short and medium term.
  4. Warn residents and campers who may be within the area or at such a distance that they may be affected within less than 24 hours, based on the propagation speed.
  5. Close or redirect the course of rivers and brooks provisionally with a view to bringing water closer to the site of the fire.
  6. Evacuate the people who live in the direction in which the fire is propagating.
  7. Restrict vehicle access to highways or roads going through the affected area.
  8. Quickly dig new fire trenches using the appropriate equipment.
  9. Eliminate as much of the nearby bushes and thicket as is possible by mechanical or manual means.
  10. Utilize specialized firefighting vehicles where terrain accessibility makes it possible.
  11. Use aircraft to fight the fire and transport personnel and equipment to remote places.
  12. When meteorological conditions allow it, use pulverized dry ice or silver iodide crystals to seed the clouds in order to promote rainfall.

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.