14ymedio, Luz Escobar, Havana, 19 April 2017 – When the wind blows, the odor of burning overwhelms the town of El Guay, in the municipality of Mella (Santiago de Cuba). It is an odor that sticks to clothes, hair and food. Last Sunday a downpour put out the forest fire that burned 5,000 hectares in the eastern part of Cuba, but the worst could be yet to come.
The columns of smoke warned the community’s residents that something was happening. In the neighboring province of Holguin, the flames began April 9 and devoured everything in their path. “Nothing was said on radio or television,” Ruberlandy Avila, 35 years of age and resident of El Guay, tells 14ymedio.
Surrounded by cane fields and vegetation, the neighbors saw the tongues of fire on the horizon as they approached. When night fell, they looked daunting and ever closer to the houses. “The entire town was affected by the smoke, many parents fled with their children without knowing what to do,” recalls the young man.
News of the fire was broadcast on national media only after a timely rain put out the last flame. The official statement blamed the disaster on the August 6th Cattle Company from the town of Biran. But the later disorganization among the forces charged with controlling it did the rest.
The fire spread through the Sierra Cristal range until arriving at the Pinares de Mayari area. According to Avila, Civil Defense authorities later reported that several local administrators had not authorized delivery of the fuel necessary for getting the tanker trucks underway to the affected zone to put out the flames.
In El Guay the residents saw the fire approaching which also fed on the branches and trees that fell after Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The combination of the dry wood and the disorganization produced conditions favorable to the fire’s spread. “We thought nothing could put out such a strong fire,” recalls the resident of Santiago.
Engineer Raul Gonzalez, head of the Fire Management Department for the Forest Rangers, warned last February that this year the Island could suffer between 400 and 450 forest fires, damaging some 4,000 hectares. The figure was easily exceeded by the 5,000 hectares of pastures, forests and oak that just finished burning in Holguin.
Not only dried branches and fallen trees were lost. Environmental specialists from the area classify as “sensitive” the damage caused to flora and fauna of the municipalities of Cueto and Mella. “There are no bird nests or butterflies left, and even lizards are damaged,” commented one resident of the Cueto municipality to 14ymedio.
Leonel Sanchez, Agriculture subdelegate in the Santiago de Cuba province, reiterated in the local press that most of these fires occur “in crop rows, livestock areas, areas where the elimination of the invasive marabou weed is underway, uncontrolled burning and non-use of spark arrestors in cars.”
Between January and May the conditions are most favorable for fires to start and for the flames to spread. Between the beginning of the year and the beginning of February, some 40 fires were reported, more than one per day.
The provinces at greatest risk are Guantanamo, Pinar del Rio, Matanzas, Camaguey, Las Tunas, Holguin, Granma and Isla de la Juventud. The human factor is the trigger in 90% of the cases.
Far from El Guay, at the other end of the Island, tobacco planter Nestor Perez also watches his cultivated fields with worry. “In this time of year forest fires are more likely,” and in Vueltabajo the farmers try to “have clean surroundings for tobacco curing houses in order to prevent those accidents.”
The Pinareno farmer recognizes that many do not complete these tasks and “that is why sometimes fires occur” because “the grass itself at this time is very dangerous.”
For Avila and his family, the drama they experienced is still very real. The days passed, the air became almost unbreathable, and in the middle of last week helicopters and small planes began to arrive to control the flames, but the situation seemed to be out of control.
A “huge downpour” came to the aid of the residents. The day that the first drops fell many watched the sky gratefully. This Monday it kept raining in Mella, a municipality that, like the rest of the Island, is suffering the worst drought since the middle of the last half century. For the moment, the residents of El Guay breathe with relief, but they know that many hard months lie ahead.
Translated by Mary Lou Keel