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Fires

In Trinidad and Tobago, forest fires (also commonly referred to as bush fires or wild fires) are signature events of the dry season. Annually throughout the country, especially along hillsides and roadways, these hazards leave a discernable mark on the biological landscape.

Forest fires can be natural occurrences, however, each year, incidences of natural forest fires are augmented by occurrences of fires set deliberately or inadvertently by humans. Out of control ‘slash and burn’ agricultural practices, hunters lighting areas to flush animals out of hiding places and careless tossing of cigarettes out of car windows are common ways in which anthropogenic forest fires can result. It is important to note, however, that in the context of forest fires as hazards, a distinction should be drawn between forest fires and prescribed burns i.e. those fires intentionally set and controlled by environmental experts in order to actively manage a particular habitat.

Impacts

The burning of forest habitat by fires can serve a number of important and beneficial ecological functions such as maintaining vegetation succession regimes and contributing to soil fertility (De Bano et al. 1998). However they also have the potential to damage and destroy ecosystems and threaten lives, property and economic activities.

In addition to these direct impacts, a forest fire can leave populations more vulnerable to flooding events due to its destructive effect on watershed catchments. Consequently the impacts of bush fire often extend way beyond the dry season when lack of vegetation cover in the face of heavy rainfall promotes soil erosion and flooding.

Prevention and Mitigation

Several steps can be taken to decrease the frequency with which forest fires occur. Additionally, when they do occur guidelines also exist to ease the extent of negative impact they may cause

Strategies that can be used in fire prevention and mitigation include:

1. Land Management which entails, but is not limited to:

  • Lessening the presence of potential fuels in forested areas by reducing the build up of combustible materials like fallen leaves, branches and trees. Based on the types of vegetation that dominate some areas are more predisposed to fires fueled by organic litter, e.g. oils found in pine tree needles/trees can cause forest stands to burn for days
  • Deliberate creation of fire breaks i.e. strategic areas of land, cleared of vegetation, designed to inhibit the advance of fires. Ways of creating fire breaks include grading, ploughing, disking, hoeing or burning. However consideration should be given to biodiversity impact, soil conservation influence and climatic conditions e.g. prevailing wind direction, before fire breaks are created. This is in an effort to promote ecological sustainability and ensure effectiveness of the breaks.
  • Providing easier access routes for firefighters to reach and extinguish blazes. In more remote locations, the feasibility of using ‘bambi buckets’, which are airlifted via helicopters, could be explored.

2. Building Management which primarily seeks to minimize the siting of buildings in fire prone locations. When they are sited in these areas however, attempts are made to abate likely fire damage by encouraging:

  • Use of  fire resistant material in construction e.g. concrete bricks as opposed to wood
  • Establishment of fire trails around building perimeters
  • The practice of storing flammable items such as fuel, wood and paint away from important structures such as dwelling spaces

3. Public Education which aims to sensitize individuals and communities to the risk of and vulnerability to forest fires and methods of mitigation and prevention. It also seeks to make them aware of who to contact and what to do in the event of a forest fire occurrence. Community based organizations can be vital partners in formulating and executing people-centred early warning systems which can be essential in alleviating the negative impacts of forest fires.

Emergency Contact Information

In order to report a forest fire in Trinidad and Tobago, persons can call:

  • Fire Services at 990,
  • Forestry Division at 622-3217 / 662-5775 / 643-9595 / 657-7256  or
  • ODPM at 640-1285 / 640-8905

For additional information the nearest Fire station, fire guardian or forest officer can be contacted. Fire guardians in various regions are appointed by the County Fire Control Officer. They make patrols within counties, inform as to guidelines for fire setting and enforce rules with regards to fire burning.  Employees of Forestry Division provide additional man-power by conducting fire patrols in high risk areas during the dry season and ensuring appropriate communication with fire officials is maintained.

Permits

It is important to note that the forest fire season is from December 1 to the following June 30. Under the Agricultural Fires Act (Ch63:02 Act 20 of 1965) a permit, obtainable from the nearest Fire Station, is required to light out door fires during this time. Failure to obtain a permit carries a fine of $1500 and 6 months imprisonment.

If a permit is granted these guidelines should be adhered to:

  • § Burn only during period specified on the permit
  • § Avoid leaving cut trees bushes or brush lying around. Discard safely to reduce fire risk.
  • § Have water readily available to extinguish a fire
  • § Don’t burn during periods of high wind or hot dry periods
  • § Have extra help available to assist in controlling fire
  • § Clear fire trace around the area to be burned
  • § Burn small amounts at a time

References:

De Bano, L.F., Neary, D.G. and Ffolhott, P.F. (1998) Fire Effects of Ecosystems. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Further Reading:

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