PUERTO RICO – Puerto Rico is now facing its second dry season since the 2017 hurricanes, and because of the remaining woody debris in the field, firefighters have been establishing several preparedness methods to combat the increasing wildfires in the midst of a drought.
According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, the severe drought in Puerto Rico increased from 5.8 to 13.10% in the second week of July, and extended from 10 to 16 municipalities, mostly located in the southwest and south region of the island. It was also revealed that the percentage of moderate drought on the island increased from 31.8% to 34.84% during the same reported week.
The dry season in Puerto Rico has different stages and characteristics depending on the geographical zone. According to Joel Figueroa, federal affairs director of the Puerto Rico Firefighters Corp, for some areas the dry season starts around January and extends throughout April. In May the island experience certain relief in some areas, and then it starts again around June, continuing throughout August.
In Puerto Rico, the southern region is characteristically dry all year-round. This zone is always dry and prone to wildfires from January through May (mostly February) because of low precipitation. “The vegetative material and the hydrated green flora do not burn; there has to be an accelerant for it to burn. Due to the abundance of woody debris/fuel since the hurricanes, there has been an increase of wildfires within green and hydrated areas,” mentioned Figueroa.
The USDA Forest Service, the National Weather Service, the local Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, the local Water and Sewage Authority, the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez and the Firefighter Corp, are all agencies involved in wildfire prevention and management in Puerto Rico. All these agencies work together in the response phase, planning, resources and the monitoring of the wildfires. The Forest Service identifies and provides funding in the case of forest fires, and depending on the case, the US Fish and Wildlife Service can also support efforts within certain ecosystems providing manpower and wildland fire equipment. In Puerto Rico, the State and Private Forestry unit from the International Institute of Tropical Forestry directly supports the Wildland Firefighters Crews from the Firefighters Corp.
Through IITF, the Wildland Firefighters Crew have access to Cooperative Fire Program funds, from which the Crew recently acquired a biodegradable product that aids to diminish the temperature of a wildfire to effectively fight them.
The Wildland Firefighters Crew, established a centralized operation center at the municipality of Juncos. From there, they integrate island-wide efforts, from which wildfires and other specialized operations are handled. During wildfire and dry season, they have other forest fire brigades in the south, southwestern and northern area, and an extra unit located at the municipality of Ponce.
In Puerto Rico, there’s no possibility of doing prescribed burns in the open field, as by state law under the Environmental Quality Board it is not permitted. It can only be done under a research project in conjunction with the University of Puerto Rico, for example, or under training scenarios. A common practice to mitigate wildfires are the fire breaks. Wildland Firefighter’s Crews create these firebreaks in abandoned terrain to make a trail that the fire will follow, away from important crops or land. This method helps stop the fire expansion to other areas, thus making it easier for firefighters.
According to Figueroa, this year has been and will continue to be very active in terms of forest fires. In the midst of a generalized drought, there hasn’t been enough rain to mitigate the incidence of wildfires because of the fuel material on the field. It is estimated that Puerto Rico experience 2,000 to 5,000 forest fires annually.