6 pilgrims still missing on Mt Banahaw
MANILA, Philippines – Six pilgrims remain missing in the slopes of Mount Banahaw after a massive blaze burned 50 hectares of the protected area.
Protected Area Superintendent Salud Pangan said the group had been in the mountain since Sunday, March 16. Their names were registered in a visitors' logbook in Barangay (Village) Kinabuhayan, Dolores, Quezon.
The 6 were with 5 other pilgrims who were brought down from the mountain at 4 pm on Thursday. They are now in the Dolores police station.
Three groups of search and rescue teams, composed of experienced mountaineers and forest rangers, have been sent to rescue the 6 climbers.
Pangan worried for their safety.
“The 6 climbers are composed of 3 women and 3 men. One of them is a 73-year-old man. It’s very cold at the top of the mountain. They might get hypothermia. And they may have limited food and water,” she said.
Yet she gave assurances that the fire is now out. It died out around 12 am on Thursday, one day and 6 hours after it was first reported.
Blesilda Clapano, one of the 5 rescued climbers, told Rappler their group of 11 went up the mountain on spiritual retreat. They are part of a group called Hiwaga ng Bundok Banahaw. They decided to climb the mountain that week to avoid the mad rush of pilgrims who visit the mountain as part of their Holy Week penance.
They were traversing the trail called Tatlong Tangke (Three Tanks) at around 1 pm when they got a text message from authorities about the fire, with instructions to go down the mountain.
Search and rescue eventually caught up with them and accompanied them down.
Clapano told Rappler that their 6 companions chose to climb further in order to reach a site called Rainbow. They planned to set up an altar there for one of them to make a wish.
The pilgrims may face charges once they get down from the mountain.
“We determined that the group of 5 were outside the restricted area but the 6 certainly committed a violation because they climbed in a restricted area,” said Pangan.
They crossed the lines established by Republic Act 9847 or the Mts Banahaw-San Cristobal Protected Landscape Act of 2009 which restricts mountaineers and pilgrims to certain areas of the mountain.
The 6 allegedly errant climbers may face a fine of P5,000 to P500,000 or imprisonment of up to 6 years.
Lack of forest rangers
Officials still have not determined conclusively what caused the fire. But a team found a candle and cooking utensils within the restricted area. The cooking area is far from Durungawan, the peak where the fire started, but Calayag said it’s possible some burning ash was carried off by strong winds to the site.
It’s not surprising many climbers are still able to slip past the cordons of the government. According to Pangan, only 5 forest rangers are in charge of protecting the more than 10,000 hectares of Mt Banahaw.
Often, the hard-headed climbers are those who know the mountain very well, having climbed the mountain many times before. They slip into the mountain very early in the morning when no one is watching.
It’s a manifestation of the poor management of protected areas in the Philippines. A study commissioned by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) showed that the country’s management of natural parks is “poor” to “fair.”
Lack of trained personnel, funding, coordination and participation among stakeholders like local government units, indigenous peoples and private sector led to this low grade.
Mount Banahaw has been closed to visitors since 2004 to give its flora and fauna a chance to rehabilitate.
Its popularity as a Holy Week pilgrimage site drew thousands of climbers to its trails.
“We conducted further studies in 2004 and found that the waters from the mountain were positive with choliform bacteria which comes from the waste of humans. More than 10 local government units depend on the water from Banahaw. Some kids got sick after drinking the water,” said Manny Calayag of the Quezon Provincial Government Environment and Natural Resources Office.
But the 10 years of rehabilitation has shown signs of success.
Pangan is proud to say that Rafflesia, a parasitic flower plant found only in Southeast Asia, is once again growing on the mountain. In 2004, they were nowhere to be found in Banahaw’s forests.
“Within the years of closure, the biodiversity of Banahaw really came back. The vegetation, the fauna. Now we have plenty of wild hogs and offspring of wild hogs.”
But it will take more years for the Durungawan site to rise from the ashes of the blaze.
Closed for good?
The climbing ban is supposed to be lifted in 2015 but the incident has led the DENR to consider permanently closing Mount Banahaw.
“The DENR is now studying the permanent closure of Mount Banahaw to the public, particularly mountaineers and pilgrims, to avoid future incidents of forest fires stemming from human activities,” said Environment Secretary Ramon Paje in a press statement.
The fire also reached nearby Mt San Cristobal where it destroyed some 92 hectares. This is the 3rd fire to hit the two mountains since 2010. — Rappler.com