Learning from a wildfire tragedy
Forest fire fighter: Puerto Rico isn’t Maui, but climate change coupled with carelessness means ever greater risk
By Richard Gutiérrez
Early last month, the Hawaiian island of Maui suffered a devastating tragedy when a fast-moving wildfire engulfed the seaside resort town of Lahaina, reducing it to ash and claiming the lives of at least 97 people, according to the authorities and The New York Times.
Needless to say, many wish the horrific event hadn’t happened in the first place. However, if anything positive can be taken from the situation, it is the knowledge that has been gathered from it, not just for Hawaii but for the rest of the world as well. That goes double for other tropical islands such as Puerto Rico. While the climate in Puerto Rico is quite different from that of Hawaii, which is much drier than the “Island of Enchantment,” wildfires are still common in Puerto Rico and tragedies are not out of the question.
Luis R. Nuñez Quiñonez, a member of the Puerto Rico Firefighters Bureau’s forest fire force, northern brigade, spoke with the STAR at the San Juan Metro Firefighters Station this week to shed some light on the possibility, if any, of something like what occurred in Maui happening in the Caribbean archipelago.
“In recent years wildfires have become very frequent, which is why the Puerto Rico Firefighters Bureau has created five different wildfire force brigades as of late,” Nuñez Quiñonez told the STAR in an exclusive interview. “Within these wildfire force brigades there’s the northern brigade; Guánica, which covers the southwest region of the island; Guayanilla; Ponce; and Juncos.”
“In this year, from January 1 to September 1, there’ve been nearly 3,000 cases of wildfires all around the island,” he added. “In the northern region, which is my turf, there have been 415 cases of wildfires and whenever any of the other brigades needs our help, we’re here to give them support.”
As to why wildfires are becoming so common, Nuñez Quiñonez had a quite simple answer.
“It’s climate change,” he said. “Temperatures are much higher, and the climate is much drier. Besides climate, the other large factor is people’s lack of education. … Here in Puerto Rico, most fires are actually caused by people. Sometimes this has to do with people clearing their land. In the coastal areas it’s usually crabbers. They use heat to make the crabs crawl out of the water. [I] can’t say specifically how that works, but the fact is that most fires that happen in that regard have to do with the techniques they use to get the critters out.”
In short, climate change has been a big contributor to wildfires occurring more frequently on the island, and people’s lack of education isn’t helping.
When asked, Nuñez Quiñonez said no firefighters from Puerto Rico participated in the Maui wildfire response action. However, many in the local force, Nuñez Quiñonez included, looked at the situation and took notes.
“What happened in Maui was a very particular situation because of the fact that climate was not in their favor, basically in every aspect,” he said. “The flames were already there, the climate was excessively dry and there was a small storm occurring, which means winds [from Hurricane Dora, whose eye was over 800 miles away] inevitably sent the flames out of control, spreading all over the place.”
“Another thing is that this is a place that had never been burned before,” Nuñez Quiñonez noted. “There was a lot of combustible material, which refers to anything that can be easy to burn such as: dry trees, leaves on the ground. That only aggravates the situation.”
He also pointed out that wood construction, to one degree or another, is fairly commonplace on Maui.
Considering the difference in climate and construction materials, how possible is it that something like the Maui wildfire could happen in Puerto Rico? While it’s highly unlikely, Nuñez Quiñonez says people shouldn’t let their guard down.
“We can never say for sure that this could never happen in Puerto Rico because in the end, nature calls the shots, though the chances are unlikely,” he said. “One of the reasons it is unlikely is because houses here are not built the same way. Rooftops of houses in Maui were mostly made of wood and metal, which inevitably caused the fire to spread even more, while in Puerto Rico houses are made of concrete and cement.”
“It is much more difficult for something like this to happen in Puerto Rico,” Nuñez Quiñonez reiterated. “We have a lot more firefighters around closer to neighborhoods, which means fires can be attacked quicker, and the climate here is very different from the climate over there. In order for spontaneous fires to occur, relative humidity must be at least between 10% and 15%; here relative humidity is normally around 60%, temperatures must be over 100 degrees as well in order for spontaneous fires to happen. Here in Puerto Rico rain is a very helpful part that we have.”
Nuñez Quiñonez also told the STAR that besides the firefighters, “citizens also must take responsibility in order for wildfires not to occur.”
“The quicker people act, and the quicker firefighters are notified about the situation, the quicker they can act,” he said. “Mitigation is the first step. People need to stop using fire to clear their land, and crab fishers need to find more ecological ways to fish out crabs because sure, you got your crabs, but you’ve destroyed the crab’s habitat and that takes a lot of time to be renewed.”
“Having less organic material around is also important, because the less combustible material there is laying around means firefighters can get to the place faster and take care of the flames, because the flames have less ground to stand on in a sense,” Nuñez Quiñonez added. “Which is why leaves and other organic material should be buried underground or disposed of.”
The overall most important thing that the wildfire specialist believes needs to be reinforced as much as possible is educating people.
“The harm from a moment of simply burning something to achieve a simple task that can be done another way, can be much greater than what people think,” Nuñez Quiñonez said. “I was reading about how much oxygen a person breathes on a day-to-day basis, which is around 7,200-8,600 liters of oxygen, which [in turn] is around 22 trees a day, and when wildfires occur, thousands of trees are burned.”
“People’s education on wildfires has gotten much better as of late, but we cannot rest on our laurels; we have to continue educating people as much as possible on the dangers and consequences that forest fires have in Puerto Rico, and anywhere in general,” he said. “It used to be worse back then and it’s much better now. People are more educated, but we have to give people even more education in order to guarantee a community that continues to have fewer fires.”