No matter what you call it, the flames and smoke will come. Though it is rainy season now, the burning will come with dry season. Last week I flew in to Belize City and saw hurricane debris in the fire-sensitive broadleaf forest. Later on the local bus across the Hummingbird Highway, I saw the situation on the ground.
I knew from lessons learned from past storms, those dead and down trees uprooted by the storm’s fury may very well bring more fire into the forest when dry season comes. Dry season will come and so will the burning. Controlling these severe human-caused fires will be challenging. The impact upon the tourist industry, livelihoods, and watersheds will, as it has been in the past, be rough. Smoke will linger and settle among the population, causing reduced visibility. Worse, the smoke will affect young and old. The impacts of severe dry season fires will affect almost everyone, whether you live back a bush or in the city. The fires will come. If you are Belizean, you have seen it all before. The sky is red at night and bare hills in the aftermath.
Yet, these devastating fires are entirely preventable. There are bad fires and good fires. Bad fires are the ones which burn in the dry season and impact everyone. Good fires are the ones that are lit by trained people in the wet season to burn off dead material and are controlled. Fire is an important tool for rural people and ecosystems when done responsibly. Both types of fire, good and bad, are challenges. How to prevent and control bad fires. How to teach and enable communities to use good fire.
Here are my lessons learned from nearly three decades of working with wildfire in Belize:
In the late 1980’s I served an internship at Monkey Bay Wildlife Sanctuary. After that, I went on to graduate school and a career as a Fire Ecologist and Fire Manager with U.S. National Park Service. Now retired, I give whatever knowledge my Belizean partners may find useful.
In my early days of studying in Belize, the country had a slower pace. Few cars and no plastic in the rivers and beaches. The Police were firm but polite. The people smiling and capable. The forests were wild, waters were clear and the reef was alive. Thanks to good work and care by the Belizean people, the environment of Belize remains in good shape. The future continues to hold much promise here.
As an American I was impressed by the Belizean spirit and the love for the land. after all these years, I still am. In Belize, I learned how a multicultural society could get things done-Together. No university class taught me as well as the bushmen and those hard working conservationists who were building the foundations for Belizean-style conservation. I am forever grateful and seek to give back whatever I can to your fine country.
Severe, dry season wildfires are things that have remain constant over the decades, I have watched Belize grow and change. Yet wildfires often burn widely across the country during the parched months of April and May. The range of the Maya Mountains is now bare in places where once the jagged ridges were cloaked in lush forests. The burning of these slopes cannot be a good thing for Belize.
In the US we have built a fire-industrial complex. We expect when a fire breaks out, a cavalry of yellow-suited heroes will arrive with their ash-covered soldiers to stop the red menace from engulfing our peaceful suburbs on the forest’s edge. If our federally subsidized heroes need more help, there will be legions of more yellow-suited infantry and large equipment pouring into the battle. An air force will appear above. Helicopters with buckets and bubble gum colored toxic slurry will fall into the wind from air tankers. Put the wildfire out at all costs. The costs are staggering.
Not so in rural Belize where the cost of one tanker of pink aerial retardant is more than many Belizeans make in a year.
I have been working mostly in Southern Belize with extraordinary partners to build safe and effective fire practices.
Rural people depend upon the skillful use of fire. That was the way it was in the Southern US and elsewhere before we, as a culture, became afraid of fire. Once we lost our relationship with fire use, we reacted by demonizing fire and the rest is history.
In Southern Belize, Maya, Creole, and Mestizo use fire to clear the woods, for preparing farms, and burning savannas for hunting. Over the years, I have seen efforts to install American-style fire management in Southern Belize rise and fall. Multinational conservantion groups came in with “Global Fire Initiatives,” promises and inflated aspirations. They left behind a little equipment and a few ideas, most of which withered under the sweltering heat and oppressive humidity. These efforts were well-meaning, but culturally detached. I know. I was part of some of these efforts.
With time and experience, I have been able to learn what really matters when one teaches fire in another culture. What really matters is communication, communication that involves listening and watching and less talking. More understanding of local needs and attitudes.
There are five languages to understand when one communicates in Southern Belize. Mopan and Kekchi Maya, Spanish, Creole and English. With language comes logic and apprehension. For me, it took a very long time to understand that small details make big differences. For example, the way we see maps and landscape in a Cartesian grid is different from the Maya map. Firefighters in the US understand the concept, “Ensure instructions are clear and understood.” What does that mean when one is reaching across 5 languages and centuries of geographical understanding? Not much.
Only through a long journey, a journey where partners and allies in Southern Belize started with nothing and grew little by little. We made our own fire tools out of sticks and palmetto fronds. We used lighter knots as drip torches to light backfires. The loose alliance of Southern Belize Fire Working Group in cooperation with the Forest Department trained and we trained with or without funding. Small success pay off but required long lasting commitment.
Augustin Sho rode nearly 20 miles one way on his bike across the muddy savanna to attend basic fire training. He had no job then, but as a Maya, he knew training would help him to develop skills. He is now a Paynes Creek Ranger and helps us instruct in Maya. He also serves as “Alcalde” (a leader) in his village. He has helped us train community members and hand-picked a cadre of students from village youth to participate in fire training. While many were teenagers, they were outstanding students. Something about growing up with a machete in their hand instead of an Xbox accelerated the “hands-on” portions of the training. This is one of many success stories along our tangled path of success and heartbreak.
There were many reasons to give up. Lack of support, funding and having overseas NGO’s disappear. Not to mention that the severe dry-season fires kept coming.
They light and fight fire with hand tools and vision. No air tanker needed.
Mario Muschamp never gave up. WIth Leonard Williams and later Norman Williams by his side, he built skills and vision. They also had many long days burning and fighting fire in the savannas and woodlands that their communities depend upon for livelihoods. Pine and palmetto provide jobs and building materials for communities. They work alongside Thomas Gomez and Son Sustainable Logging to put good fire into the forest and prevent the bad driven dry season fires that kill tiny pine seedlings and anything else that cannot escape fast moving flames.
Their low-intensity prescribed fires, skillfully applied, keep pine seedlings and palmetto berries from burning. They protect the roosting sites of the Yellow-headed Parrot and so much more by burning the old vegetation which grows back green quickly. Once the old dead vegetation is burned and the green-up begins, dry season fires can not impact these areas for several years. A win-win for prevention of large scale fires and the environment.
TIDE Rangers at Paynes Creek and their regional stakeholders have worked tirelessly to include their partners and Belize Forest Department in their training and skill building creating Southern Belize Fire Working Group to build cohesion and share very limited resources. There is one fire fighting vehicle in Southern Belize, a well loved, but well worn 6×6 Polaris. No engines, no 6 pack crew rigs, no hotshots in $300 boots. Just relentlessly dedicated people.
The Darwin Project has brought some funds from the United Kingdom to assist in the conservation of biodiversity with an eye on communities and sustainability. Without deep relationships with the communities, training is banging on an empty barrel expecting a symphony. Unlike past fire training efforts held by American NGO’s at nice eco-lodges and well-funded field stations, Darwin and its project proponents from the University of Edinburgh recognized the need to train and enhance livelihoods.
Most of the 5 villages we work with are surrounded by flammable protected areas. Thanks to the work by PhD student Cathy Smith as well as local insights, we are beginning to understand how each community uses the natural resources from the protected areas. This has helped us customize fire training to suit community needs.
The Darwin Project funded our ability to write training curriculum for communities. To do this we took our lessons from the dozens of participants we trained and used the most applicable elements of Basic Wildland Fire Training in the US. Big step forward.
We have also been able to train young people and women. After all, who will be at home to organize when the wildfire comes? The men are working in jobs away from home.
Biodiversity in Southern Belize is not an abstraction.
In Southern Belize, a significant amount of the population depends upon “biodiversity”. Many species are harvested and hunted. The health of the water and air is critical. Severe large-scale wildfires have their impact. Prescribed fire is more benign and controllable.
Because the communities depend upon natural resources, we developed monitoring protocols as part of the Darwin Project. We have trained several community members in techniques and methods to measure changes in pine and palmetto production as well as wildlife habitat. These community members were excellent citizen scientists with more at stake than anyone to understand the impact of severe fires verses low-intensity prescribed fires.
Last month, Mario Muschamp and I presented our work at the MesoAmerican Society for Biology Congress in Belize City.
The Belizean Woodlands and Savannas hold a significant amount of the country’s biodiversity. Threatened by agricultural development (enjoy your banana and pineapple) and conversion at an alarming rate, this ecosystem attracts less attention than the over-advertised “rainforest” and coral reefs that make Belize an alluring location for adventure tourism and internships. The savanna and woodlands knit these more well-known ecosystems together across the Maya Mountains to the sea landscape. What happens in the savannas and woodlands impacts the emerald toucan festooned forest and the colorful reef.
Without the help of many, we could not have come this far.
On any day, a walk across the savanna and woodlands of southern Belize is a tough trip.
I don’t recommend going at it alone without a local to guide you. Where one steps really matters. Better to follow the footsteps of the experienced.
Fire season is coming just as rainy season brings floods and storms. Now is the time to prepare.
Fire Ecologist and friend of Belize