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Trailblazers for Wildfire Preparedness in the Philippines

After a series of wildfires broke out in the Philippines, the B+WISER program is helping revamp the country’s approach to fire management.

Towering 9,692 feet above sea level, Mount Apo is celebrated as the “Grandfather of Philippine Mountains.” It’s the country’s tallest mountain and volcano, and also a protected environmental area with rich forests and biodiversity. Mount Apo’s forests are safeguarded by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Philippine government agency tasked with protecting the country’s treasured environment.

But when a wildfire spread from the mountain’s peak in March 2016, the country’s conservation efforts were at the brink of destruction. Communities and government officials alike realized that environmental management requires more than conservation; it’s requires having the right tools to fight environmental threats. In partnership with the Biodiversity and Watersheds Improved for Stronger Economy and Ecosystem Resilience (B+WISER) program, the DENR is conserving the country’s vulnerable ecosystems while also preparing for a dangerous hazard — forest fires.

When the fires broke out last year in Mount Apo Natural Park, also setting ablaze the peaks of Mount Kanlaon and Mount Kitanglad, wildfire preparedness became a big priority. Hundreds of hectares of forest and grassland were destroyed. And the government was hard-pressed to find solutions. After 20 years without formal training on fire management, the DENR had limited capacity to respond quickly and effectively. B+WISER, funded by USAID and implemented by Chemonics, helped the DENR conduct a rapid fire assessment. Coordinated among various agencies, this assessment supported communities to act as first responders on the ground. The process shed light on two major needs: inter-agency collaboration between the DENR and the Bureau of Fire Protection (BFP), and overall capacity development for fire management.

As a result, B+WISER incorporated wildfire preparedness into its mission to improve natural resource management and reduce forest degradation. In the months following the major wildfires, B+WISER trained 50 officials from the DENR and the BFP in forest fire management.

A crucial first step was training personnel to prepare for and respond to wildfires. In partnership with fire experts from the U.S. Forest Service, B+WISER hosted a “train-the-trainer” program in July 2016 focused on wildfire prevention, suppression, and management.

The training session, which was an engaging combination of presentations, simulations, and role play, covered all aspects of wildfire preparedness, from forest fire management to fire response plans to recovery of damaged areas. Designed with the DENR, the session catered to the reality and conditions of wildfire preparedness in the Philippines.

“The basic fire training of B+WISER is one learning event which should be conducted nationwide among DENR managers, field implementers, and on-site beneficiaries,” said Forester Jesse Vego, assistant regional director for technical services in DENR’s Western Visayas region, who participated in the training. “It should have been undertaken long ago. In that training not only was I made aware of the science and technique of fire-fighting but also on the administrative aspects of fire management.”

In one activity, the participants broke into seven groups and evaluated forest fire response needs in specific regions across the country. This required the groups to understand local areas of protection, ecosystem diversity, natural and manmade barriers to fire spread, and resource needs.

With a scenario-based curriculum, the session immersed participants in the complexities of fire management. While first responders fight the blaze of a wildfire, the Incident Command System (ICS) works behind the scenes as the Philippines’ management system for disaster response. The week-long session not only reinforced the role of the ICS, but also incorporated the various players that make fire management possible.

“Fire control is not only a technical skill. It is managerial,” Vego said. “In overall context, fire control involves governance where all stakeholders, on-site and off-site, must know their respective responsibilities, accountabilities, and spheres of influence.”

Each group of participants was asked to designate a fire commander, finance chief, public information officer, and roles for logistics, planning, operations, and safety. In addition, the groups were given limited resources for their forest fire scenario, which required them to embrace a national scale of wildfire response.

As participants outlined a course of action, they gained valuable insight on how to evaluate environmental conditions before the fire and how to foster community resilience in the fire’s wake. For example, during the wildfire on Mount Apo, indigenous communities and members of Mt. Apo’s porters and guide association, trained by B+WISER, served as vital first responders. So the session encouraged participants to think beyond government institutions while defining roles in a fire response plan. From local fire brigades to grassroots partners, the session recognized Filipino communities as an important collaborator in forest fire management.

Mount Apo's Park Operations Superintendent Eduard Ragaza said that wildfire preparedness goes beyond government officials. “With this training, we can share what we learned with communities around Mt. Apo and encourage them to be our active partners in combating and even preventing forest fires.” As Philippine government officials and staff strengthen their capacity to prepare for and respond to wildfires, they recognize the importance of grassroots ownership of wildfire preparedness initiatives.

Acknowledging their close proximity to the park, some local governments incorporated communities as first fire responders in their disaster risk reduction and management plans and trained firefighting volunteers based on what they learned during the wildfire preparedness training session.

Forest fire response isn’t the only channel of community engagement in the country’s conservation efforts. B+WISER also engages local communities in the implementation of the LAWIN Forest and Biodiversity Protection System. Through this system, DENR collects data on forest health, monitors environmental degradation, develops responses to observed threats, and supports environmental law enforcement. Just as LAWIN provides alternative sources of livelihoods to forest-dependent communities, B+WISER is similarly working closely with Filipino communities to revamp its approach to wildfire management.

Together, the Philippine government, local communities, and key wildfire response personnel are creating a holistic strategy to protect environmental treasures and fight the elements that threaten them.

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