Secretary Roy A. Cimatu has placed all regional offices of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on alert for forest fires as the country braces for the impact of El Niño phenomenon.

He instructed the executive directors of 16 DENR regional offices to effect a region-wide assessment and updating of their respective forest protection plans in anticipation of an El Niño-induced drought, which could increase the risk of wild fires.

“Our teams should always be ready for deployment to suppress incidents of outbreaks, particularly grassfires, to prevent them from crossing over to forested areas and turn into full-blown forest fires,” Cimatu said.

The environment chief told his field officials to give priority to vulnerable sites inside protected areas and those that have been rehabilitated under the Enhanced National Greening Program (ENGP).

Fire brigades in ENGP sites, he said, are to be fully optimized using the manpower pool of 3,350 regular forest guards with the help of emergency workers hired under the program.

Last year, the DENR upgraded its forest fire fighting capabilities with the acquisition of more fire fighting equipment and tools, such as fuel-powered grass cutter, collapsible fire pump, fire swatters, pick and scrape shovels, axes, rake hoes,fire helmets, heat resistant goggles, brush masks, and thermal working gloves. Said equipment and tools were distributed to 74 Provincial Environment and Natural Resources Offices (PENROs) and 140 Community Environment and Natural Resources Offices (CENROs) nationwide.

This was followed by Cimatu’s issuance of an administrative order on the adoption of a national strategy for forest and biodiversity protection using a digital technology-based forest monitoring system called “Lawin Forest and Biodiversity Protection System.”

Under the Lawin system, forest areas at risk of threats such as forest fires, timber and wildlife poaching and illegal occupancy, are mapped and profiled.

Part of its surveillance activities is to seek out for “triggers” for forest fires, which include fuel wood gathering, kaingin-making, charcoal-making, honey collection, camping and recreation, pasture preparation, and hunting.

Close to 5,000 Lawin patrollers covered some 124,000 kilometers of forest lines in their foot patrolling in 2018.

Meanwhile, Cimatu directed the PENROs and CENROs to step up their information campaign and coordination with local government officials down to the barangay level to increase community awareness and vigilance on preventing or fighting forest fires.

“Community support will spell the difference if we will succeed or not in this fight as what we have witnessed in the rehabilitation of Boracay and Manila Bay,” Cimatu said.

He also ordered the Mines and Geosciences Bureau to review and closely monitor compliance of mining companies with their approved Environmental Protection and Enhancement Program (EPEP), which includes the conduct of forest fire prevention measures like establishment of firebreaks or buffer fire lines and inventory of all fire fighting tools.

Last February 20, a forest fire razed around 125 hectares of sloping forestland being rehabilitated by the Philex Mining Company in Itogon, Benguet since 2014. Five Philex forestry workers perished in the 21-hour forest fire. ###