A wildfire that has burned away 2,500 hectares in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve in Quintana Roo rages on, continuing to threaten hundreds of native plant and animal species that live within the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Reserve director Omar Ortiz Moreno said a joint team of army and navy personnel with special vehicles and a helicopter, firefighters, volunteers and authorities from the three levels of government have managed to bring 45% of the blaze under control and extinguish 15%.
Gonzalo Merediz Alonso, executive director of the organization Friends of Sian Ka’an, said the wildfire, which was initially discovered by satellite imaging on Sunday by the National Forestry Commission, was started by illegal fires lit by hunters in the forest’s underbrush.
“It is a common practice [in Quintana Roo] for hunters to set fire to the savanna to be able to better spot deer since the grass is very tall. Of course, this time it looks like things got out of control.”
Castillo Carballo, a legal assistant for the National Forestry Commission, said a fire eight years ago burned 3,000 hectares in the same area. He added that in the south and southeastern portions of the biosphere reserve, the flames were going out as they met with denser forest.
“We hope that it continues doing that, but as a preventative measure we are opening gaps and setting up firewalls, which means that we should have the fire fully under control within a week.”
The flames are fed mainly by grass between 30 and 80 meters high, and sometimes leap as high as 3 to 5 meters, but are extinguished as soon as they make contact with denser forested areas or after all the grass has been burned.
“We must stay focused and prevent the fire from ‘jumping,’ which is why we have opened gaps and set up firewalls so that the flames come up against a barrier.”
State Civil Protection chief Adrián Martínez Ortega said fighting the conflagration has been complicated by especially dry conditions and by federal budget cuts, which have left the National Forestry Commission short-staffed. He said a 50% budget cut forced the commission to let go of several employees, including wildfire experts who had intimate knowledge of the affected area.
Friends of Sian Ka’an’s Merediz said the wildfire will have a direct and negative effect on the reproductive cycles of crocodiles, turtles, snakes, frogs and some birds, and that the burning vegetation will release a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“If someone committed a crime, they should be punished for it according to the law, because a reserve like the Sian Ka’an is an important tool for development and we must take steps to prevent this kind of devastation.”
The 528,000-hectare reserve is located in the municipalities of Tulum and Felipe Carrillo Puerto.