Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity

by Ya'axche Conservation Trust
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Building Community Fire Fighting Capacity
Ya'axche and Benque community fire team
Ya'axche and Benque community fire team

Fire management has become a critical component of Ya’axché’s work, particularly within our Community Outreach and Livelihoods (COL) program. Although fire does impact the protected areas which Ya’axché manages and our enforcement rangers are trained in fire fighting basics, it is the COL team that works directly with the local communities of the Maya Golden Landscape (MGL), building relationships and assisting community farms to implement more sustainable agriculture to help better local livelihoods. As fire is almost always a byproduct of the traditional milpa, or slash-and-burn agriculture, its management naturally falls to the COL team.   

Ya’axché has learned a lot and has made great progress towards strong fire management within the MGL over the past few years. Fire management has grown to play an important role within Ya’axché’s conservation and livelihood development strategy. One flame to thatch (the traditional and common roofing structure in Maya communities) and a home is gone, illustrating fire management is about forest and ecosystem conservation as it is about human life and livelihoods.  

As Belize is between fire seasons, I took this opportunity to talk through Ya’axché’s past and current fire strategy with Mr. Erwin Tush, an Agroforestry Extension Officer, trained in fire management, who has been with Ya’axché for over two years.   

The 2020 Fire Season 

Mr. Tush first gained fire experience when, in the spring of 2020, Ya’axché was invited by the Benque community, located in Belize’s Cayo District, to assist with fighting fire in the Vaca Forest Reserve. He described the need to strategize how to most effectively fight the fire because of the mountainous terrain and the thick layer of litter, of at least 6 inches in depth, which causes fire to crawl under the detritus layer and spread quicklyOne of the challenges was the lack of a developed relationship with Benque and the surrounding communities, especially because of the vital role communication and understanding is in successful firefighting efforts. Furthermore, the 2020 fire season demonstrated Ya’axché’s limits in meeting the local and national needs, particularly in terms of staff and equipment  

The 2021 Fire Season

Mr. Tush started the fire season by attending an engaging and informative fire management training hosted and led by Dos Fuegos, where he was able to expand his knowledge and reflect on the 2020 fire season to determine Ya’axché’s strengths and areas of improvement in terms of dealing with fire within the broadleaf forest landscapeThis led to strong engagement of MGL communities through hands-on fire trainings. With Covid-19 still active in Belize, the trainings led by Ya’axché had to be conducted with the utmost care and planning. Even with the challenges of the pandemic, Ya’axché was able to work with a total of six villages in southern Belize during this season: 

  • The villages of Trio, Indian Creek, Medina Bank and Bladen became more involved in fire management 
  • San Pedro Columbia village requested fire training, which Ya’axché facilitated through a one-day classroom session and a one-day practical session which included a controlled burn   
  • Assistance with controlled burns was requested by community members of Medina Bank, San Pedro Columbia and Big Falls and provided by Ya’axché  
  • Fire equipment was requested and borrowed by the communities of Indian Creek, Medina Bank and Bladen 

Ya’axché’s Fire Management Program Goals

“I knew nothing about fire but now I take it seriously, especially during fire season.”

 – Mr. Erwin Tush, Ya’axché Agroforestry Extension Officer 

Mr. Tush epitomizes the change Ya’axché seeks to make within all 10 communities we work within the MGL. Going forward, the ultimate goal is to procure proper fire equipment for one fire team per MGL village. However, this is quite ambitious, as just one set of fire suit and boots costs BZD $1,500. Ya’axché has seen firsthand the desire of local communities to safely manage fire, and so we can confidently say that this equipment would be put to good use. As always, we thank you, our GlobalGiving supporters for allowing us to work towards training and equipping the MGL communities to manage fire to save livelihoods.  

"Before" - Controlled Burn in Big Falls Village
"Before" - Controlled Burn in Big Falls Village
"During" - Controlled Burn in Big Falls Village
"During" - Controlled Burn in Big Falls Village
"After" - Controlled Burn in Big Falls Village
"After" - Controlled Burn in Big Falls Village
A Community Fire Fighter in Medina Bank Village
A Community Fire Fighter in Medina Bank Village
Medina Bank Community Fire Fighting Team
Medina Bank Community Fire Fighting Team

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Integrated fire management training
Integrated fire management training

Ya’axché spent the 2021 fire season building capacity, strengthening education and awareness and lending technical support to local  communities across southern Belize’s Maya Golden Landscape (MGL).

 

To prepare for the 2021 fire season, ten San Pedro Columbia village volunteer firefighters, consisting of Village Council, Alcalde and community members came together to build their capacity in the management and proper control of fire through the technical support and guidance of Ya’axché.In April, Ya’axché’s fire team facilitated this two day fire management training for ten MGL community members in the village of San Pedro Columbia. As one of the MGL communities severely impacted by the raging fires of 2020, which destroyed many acres of forest and farmland, Ya’axché was invited to facilitate a two-day training in April for these firefighters, which focused  on the importance of fire management at the landscape level, weather impacts on fire severity and  fire behavior. A control burn demonstration concluded the training, which provided participants the opportunity to be introduced to fire equipment and associated fire safety protocols. The planned control burn practical session was conducted on a local community farm where participants had the opportunity to create a fire break and manage  a fire within a controlled environment.

 

To complement the fire training, Ya’axché had an informative radio show on April 15, 2021 which premiered on local radio station-Sunshine Raydio. The Ya’axché fire team discussed the importance of integrated fire management in the MGL and how to conduct a control burn. The radio talk show also spotlighted San Pedro Columbia’s  community firefighters including Mr. Basilicas Choco, San Pedro Columbia village chairman, who took part in the capacity training. He shared his experience on the impact of fire and his community initiatives in building a firefighting team. Ya’axché recognizes that fire is a major threat to local communities, farmlands and forests and the radio show provided another way for technical support and awareness on fire management to be disseminated to MGL communities. To further expand their reach, the Ya’axché fire team were guests on a Belizean podcast called the Mada Fyah. The podcast focused on forest fire management where the fire team shared about proper control burn and alternatives to use of fire in agriculture in the segment called “Integrated fire management in the Maya Golden Landscape”- start listening at 15:58.

 

Ya’axché also provided technical support to three farmers in the months of April and May to conduct managed control burns on their milpa farmlands ranging from two to five acres. Ya’axché’s fire team carried out farmland inspections in preparation for the burn, as well as transported necessary materials to prepare and execute the burns. Two of the three controlled burns were executed by a fire team previously trained by Ya’axché.  These requests for support in carrying out burns at the community level, which only increased post-radio show and podcast broadcast, demonstrates that there is an increase in the awareness to manage fires responsibly. These positive steps demonstrate Ya’axché’s community-based fire management approach is working,both in terms of awareness and local action. 

 

We are grateful that our technical support assisted in having a commendable fire season. Many thanks to our GlobalGiving donors for allowing us to integrate fire management in the communities of the MGL. With your support, the future for fire management is very hopeful and can be expanded to incorporate science-based decisions and management practices.Ya’axché looks forward to continuing to build community fire management through further capacity building, controlled burns and equipment in 2022.

Ya'axche's Fire boss lecturing on fire management
Ya'axche's Fire boss lecturing on fire management
San Pedro Columbia trainees
San Pedro Columbia trainees
Flier for radio talk show
Flier for radio talk show
Conducting a control burn
Conducting a control burn
Successful completion of a control burn
Successful completion of a control burn
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Refresher Course: Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche
Refresher Course: Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche

Belize’s fire season has commenced for 2021 and can have devastating repercussions if not properly understood and managed. Ya'axché Conservation Trust has been in full gear preparing for this 2021 fire season, which initiated on the 15th of February and culminates on the 30th of June. 

The first step was a national-level, week-long capacity-building opportunity presented to our staff. Ya’axche’s second-in-command fire boss, Mr. Erwin Tush, participated in a fire training session held from the 1st to the 8th February 2021. The Belize Forest Department organized the training session, which was executed by Dos Fuegos Fire Management. Dos Fuegos specializes in solving fire management problems using fire effect monitoring, fire behavior, and fuel assessment in fire-prone ecosystems. It also provides managers and practitioners with methods for science-based solutions to fire management. Conducted virtually due to Covid-19, the session allowed participants around the country to attend and participate. Topics covered in training included establishing an Incident Command System, leadership capacity building, hazards and risks, tactics and strategies, Incident Response Planning, prescribed burn planning and management, and the art of igniting a fire. 

A refresher course, which included strategization of managing fire through an integrated approach, was conducted with Ya’axché’s fire team on 17th February 2021 to continue preparing for the fire season. The refresher course was executed by Ya’axché’s fire boss, Mr. Eugenio Ah, along with Mr. Erwin Tush, who transferred knowledge from his previous participation in the national fire training session. This internal course highlighted the vitality of a fire team’s Incident Command System (ICS), proper handling and use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and the importance of proper fire management practices. Additionally, the refresher course focused on communicating the following takeaway points for the upcoming fire season:  

  • Implementing proper fire management not only on farms but within protected areas and buffering communities 
  • Enhancing the sustainability of Inga alley cropping, cacao-based agroforestry, and beekeeping through proper fire management practices
  • Establishing key partners to foster firefighting stewardship within buffer communities to prevent escaped fires 
  • Incorporating scientific monitoring and research activities by  Ya'axché’s Science Program into fire monitoring 

We can never be too prepared for a fire season, but having these capacity-building sessions is guiding Ya’axché’s fire team in the right direction. Hopefully, the detrimental impacts from this year’s fire season are minimal. In any case, the Ya’axché fire team will be on alert and prepared to take action for any fire ignited within the Maya Golden Landscape.  

Fire-related PPE: Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche
Fire-related PPE: Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche
Fire drill practice: Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche
Fire drill practice: Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche
Demonstration :Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche
Demonstration :Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche
Fire Management: Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche
Fire Management: Photo by Sayuri Tzul/Ya'axche
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Advertising Ya'axche radio show on fire management
Advertising Ya'axche radio show on fire management

Fire can be a threat to biodiversity and the status of vegetation when uncontrolled burning occurs, which is why Ya'axché is proactive in its fire fighting program. There are two types of burns common in Belize: cooler burns occur usually in December and January when the wet ground is protected from the burning fuel load which is dry between 3-4 days, while the hotter burns, usually in April and May, fully burn the ground. These hotter burns coincide with when most farmers burn to clear land for agriculture. Close monitoring of fire, especially for hot burns and wildfires, is carried out between February and June, Belize's annual fire season. (E.Ah, Personal Communication, 3 November 2020). In Belize, the 2020 fire season, forecasted in December 2019, has concluded. The year’s fire season was a very active one, and started out strong in February with prevalent fires along the country’s western border with Guatemala, outside of Ya’axché’s primary focal area of the Maya Golden Landscape. Specifically, these major fires were centered around the Vaca Forest Reserve and the nearby town of Benque Viejo. Ya’axché’s fire team was asked to provide fire fighting capacity to farmers, whose crops were at risk, and suppression support to the Benque Viejo community members, due to the smoke becoming a health hazard. In May, while Ya’axché was supporting fire fighting in western Belize, fire reached the Maya Golden Landscape, where a large, uncontrolled fire broke out between the villages of San Pedro Columbia, Crique Jute, Mafredi and San Antonio. There were losses of corn crops and cacao farms, and widespread erosion due to large burned areas becoming  exposed to heavy rains. Based on the major fires being pinpointed, the Maya Golden Landscape saw an exponential increase in fire, forecasting that fire will remain a serious threat in seasons to come. 

Ya’axché spent the early part of 2020 working to develop their fire management plan to respond to such types of fire hazards, as well as the ever increasing intensity of the annual fire season. The plan developed included meeting with village leaders so as to share information on the fire season, as well as obtaining a list of farmers from the community who were going to burn their milpa (traditionally practiced slash and burn agriculture) plots and select leaders for firefighting training. Unfortunately, these meetings were not concluded due to Covid-19 and subsequent nationwide and community precautionary lockdowns and other measures.Other parts of the fire management plan which Ya’axché was able to carry out this season focused on community education and outreach. This  included being featured on a local radio show, sharing fire posters and other information online and presenting on fire to local school-aged children during Ya’axché’s summer camp.

On May 12th 2020, Ya’axché’s Community Outreach and Livelihoods team, including resident fire experts, hosted the “Ya’axché radio show” on local station, “Sunshine Raydio.” Local community members of all ages could listen to these experts discuss topics such as the causes of escaped fire, fire’s impact on biodiversity and communities, steps to take for a safe burn, and Belize’s regulation to prevent escape fires. The radio show was a formidable way to capture the attention and share information and knowledge on fire management and control burns with audiences around Southern Belize. Another education strategy deployed to capture audience attention was the May launch of a fire poster, which was generated and shared online across Ya’axché’s social media accounts (Facebook and Instagram). The post was focused on advocating for safe burns, and the information was translated into the four most common languages spoken in southern Belize, including English, Spanish, Mopan and Q'eqchi (the later two representing indigenous Maya languages). Since southern Belize’s Toledo district has a diverse population with a diversity of languages being spoken, it made sense to target audiences in their native language. The final fire education component occurred August 3rd through August 7th, during the annual summer camp held for local children aged 12 to 18 years old. This year, one of the camp presentations was primarily focused on fire management, with the organization’s main firefighting experts sharing information with the camp youth on topics such as basic fire behavior, fire break and ignition techniques, as well as the impact of different weather conditions on fire and instructions on how to control fire.

Milpa, or slash and burn agriculture is one of the primary farming methods in the Maya Golden Landscape, as well as one of the leading causes of runway fires and forest fires. Ya’axché’s work in sharing knowledge and helping local farmers transition away from slash and burn to climate-smart farming methods, such as slash and mulch, Inga Alley cropping and other agroforestry techniques, becomes even more important. However, Ya’axché realizes that not all farmers are willing to adapt these climate-smart agricultural techniques. It is therefore of great importance for farmers to take ownership of their fire before and after they burn their farms.  With these initiatives, there have been fewer runaway and agriculture-based fires, illustrating that Ya'axché’s work in spreading climate-smart  farming, coupled with their fire management plan, is  having a positive impact through less forest fire.

Ya'axché Conservation Trust looks forward to continuing this work in 2021 and beyond, so as to decrease fire’s impacts on local forested ecosystems and communities. Ya'axché hopes to continue social media during fire season, and capacity building for community members. Apart from the already established fire mitigation strategy, Ya’axché’s fire team is already looking to improve their efforts for 2021, which includes creating a fire plan to target cacao agroforestry farms. Other actions the organization seeks to implement include utilizing a map to chart fire frequency, establishing fire monitoring plots to see the effects of fire, and working to  reforest areas that are burned, especially riparian forest areas. The future is daunting but Ya’axché sees many possibilities for the fire season to be managed and become less dangerous for local communities and less harmful for the country’s forests and biodiversity.  

Ya'axche's fire poster in English and Spanish
Ya'axche's fire poster in English and Spanish
Fire poster in Mopan and Q'eqchi languages
Fire poster in Mopan and Q'eqchi languages
Summer Camp Attendees : Photo by Sayuri Tzul /YCT
Summer Camp Attendees : Photo by Sayuri Tzul /YCT
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Photo credit: Christina Garcia & Erwin Tush
Photo credit: Christina Garcia & Erwin Tush

This spring, in addition to battling Covid-19, Ya’axché Conservation Trust was also fighting fire. Although fires are common during Belize’s dry season, which typically runs from February through May, the country has seen more frequent, stronger and intense fires in recent years, a direct result of climate change, which impacts both local livelihoods and conservation efforts. The end of April brought hot, humid and dry conditions to Belize, which led to incredible, uncontrolled fires in the country’s western district of Cayo. The Cayo community of Benque Viejo del Carmen (Benque) and the nearby Vaca Forest Reserve (the Vaca) became the epicenter of these fires and where Ya’axché focused their fire fighting efforts after receiving invitations for help from farmers and community members of Benque. 

 

Three days of firefighting efforts were led by Ya’axché’s Community Outreach and Livelihoods (COL) team and on-the-ground support and encouragement was provided by Ya’axché’s executive director. After providing quick instruction and an overview of firefighting equipment, strategy and safety protocol, the COL team and local community members set to the hard work of fighting to contain and extinguish the fires that threatened Benque, nearby farms and the lands protected in the Vaca. The Vaca covers 35,701 acres and forms part of Belize’s Maya Mountain Massif (MMM), a key biodiversity area and ecosystem service powerhouse. Through a series of protected areas, the MMM reaches the Caribbean Sea and Toledo district, where Ya’axché’s headquarters are located. In fact,  Ya’axché works to protect 151,000 acres of forests and protected areas within the south-eastern portion of the MMM, through management of the private Golden Stream Corridor Preserve and through co-management of Bladen Nature Reserve and Maya Mountain North Forest Reserve. 

 

Teamwork, a strong line of communication, clear organization and delineated areas of responsibility were essential to the success of this firefighting mission. Because of the organisation’s current Fire Management Plan, equipment, as well as the experience of COL team members in firefighting, Ya’axché was able to quickly respond and set up a fire chain of command, which included both staff and community members, and was led by the Burn Boss, an experienced fire fighting member of Ya’axché’s COL team. We are grateful that our capacity, many thanks to our GlobalGiving donors, allowed for staff to join the Benque community to help preserve both local livelihoods and natural resources, including forest cover within the Vaca. 

 

This recent experience of firefighting in western Belize demonstrates how necessary strong partnerships, training, education and equipment are to be able to act quickly to fight fire and protect land, forest and human health. Ya'axché looks forward to sharing our knowledge and experience to help Belizean communities further fight these fires that are becoming more frequent and intense in the face of climate change. Although this work was conducted outside of Ya’axché’s Maya Golden Landscape of southern Belize, the interconnectivity of the landscape is undeniable, as these actions still contributed towards the protection of the larger MMM, as well as to Ya’axché’s vision of working towards harmony between nature and human development for the benefit of both.

Photo credit: Christina Garcia & Erwin Tush
Photo credit: Christina Garcia & Erwin Tush
Photo credit: Christina Garcia & Erwin Tush
Photo credit: Christina Garcia & Erwin Tush
Photo credit: Christina Garcia & Erwin Tush
Photo credit: Christina Garcia & Erwin Tush

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Organization Information

Ya'axche Conservation Trust

Location: Punta Gorda, Toledo District - Belize
Website:
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Twitter: @Yaaxche?lang=en
Project Leader:
Megan Lopez
Punta Gorda, Toledo District Belize
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