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Cancun Fires: Jungle Burns, But Beaches Unaffected

July 31, 1989

CANCUN, Mexico (AP) _ Low, creeping jungle fires fed by debris from Hurricane Gilbert have charred hundreds of miles of the Yucatan Peninsula, but the beaches have been spared.

″We need two or three days of continual rain to put it out. We need another hurricane, but a benevolent one,″ said Jose Angel Loria, the Agriculture Department’s top official in Quintana Roo state.

Prevailing winds from the sea pushed the fires and smoke away from the plush resort of Cancun, where they started in March on the city’s western fringes, and from a string of towns dotting the white-sand coast.

But by the end of July the fires had burned 370,000 acres of forest in a 70-mile strip down the Yucatan, feeding on deadfall from last September’s hurricane. Ecologists say the fire has damaged the thin soil and accuse the government of bumbling and delay in fighting the blaze.

″The Cancun fires are an ecological disaster of great proportions,″ said Homero Aridjis, a spokesman for the Group of 100 Artists and Intellectuals, one of Mexico’s main environmental organizations.

Mark Goldston of Syosset, N.Y., saw thin columns of smoke as he flew into Cancun for a vacation.

″There were so many of them we began to wonder if they were geysers of some sort,″ he said.

Traveling along the coast to the south, he noticed the smell of smoke. On that road, and west toward the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, patches of burned jungle run up to the edge of the road.

But a tourist on the beach at Cancun’s hotel strip, across a large lagoon from the mainland, wouldn’t know there was a fire. Several tourists mentioned seeing smoke from the air, but none said it interfered with their vacation.

Jose Ignacio Pedroza Alvarez, administrator of the Cancun office of the Urban Development and Ecology Department, said loss of vegetation and dislocation of wildlife is substantial.

Slow-moving creatures like snakes have been found in the ashes, but most large mammals and other swift-moving animals are believed to have escaped, he said. No one has been injured or killed and no homes have been destroyed.

″They have gone to nearby areas, fortunately, jungle areas that have the same characteristics,″ he said. ″They may adapt to the place, but two things can happen: the struggle against other species for food and the competition for space.″

Gilbert’s howling winds left 2.5 million acres of forest a tinderbox of fallen trees, branches and leaves. There have been similar fires after previous hurricanes, but they didn’t blow down as much timber.

The Yucatan forest, on a limestone cap covered by as little as three inches of soil, is not the classic towering rain forest of broadleafed trees, tangles of vines and dangling lianas like the famous Lacondon jungle 400 miles to the southwest. Most of the Yucatan trees are under 100 feet tall.

Loria said the six main fires stretch from the northeast corner of the Yucatan Peninsula 70 miles south past Cancun toward the snorkeling lagoon of Xel Ha.

″What we are sure of is that man caused the fires,″ said Loria. He said they could have been ignited by the slash and burn agriculture common in the area, cigarette butts or campfires left by hunters.

Critics say bureaucracy interfered with projects to clear fallen timber and that the government did nothing when the fires started, confident the rains would come, as usual, in May. But there has been little rain.

″There was little attention from the state government until the situation reached uncontrollable proportions,″ said Fernando Gutierrez, who is active in the local Mayab Ecological Group.

Loria said some work was done but confirmed that officials were, in fact, waiting for rain. In July, he said, winds fanned the flames, spreading the fire 2,500 acres a day.

That was when 2,700 army and navy troops were called in, joining a maximum of 500 civilians to cut firebreaks and limit the blazes.

The fire has been fickle, sending out fingers a foot or two high that turn the litter of leaves to thick ash, burn small trees and char big trunks until a tree topples, but sparing others.

From a low-flying plane, blackened earth shows through a still-green canopy. Some trees that survived may die soon because their roots burned, Pedroza said.

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