Right now, Belizeans are doing their best to reduce their risk of catching the highly contagious coronavirus. That's why there was great concern this morning when residents of Belmopan and nearby communities woke up to a thick cloud of smoke polluting their air.

As all of us know by now, COVID-19 is a respiratory illness that directly affects the lungs. And so, the local experts are concerned that air pollution can increase the COVID health risks.

So, who's to blame? From where did the cloud of smoke over Belmopan originate? Well, the authorities suspect that farmers with nearby properties are preparing their land for agriculture, and they're using fires to simplify their task. The vegetation from wild bushes have been dried out due to the lack of rains, and that means that any spark causes them to catch fire.

When Belmopan residents saw this post from the respected environmental scientist, Jan Meerman, they became worried about air pollution. He said that his tests for air quality showed a large quantity of smoke in the air over the capital, and warned that over-exposure could get residents ill.

This afternoon, we spoke with Meerman via video chat about his findings:

Jan Meerman - Environmental Scientist
"The measures in Belize during the rainy season, those measurements are clean. Belize has perfect air. But, in the dry season, we have smoke, and that's not healthy. The big thing about this sensor is probably that it shows the levels. Belize is very used to smoke every dry season, and especially those that live inland, the ones that live near to where fires take place, it's a fact of life. No one realizes that it's dangerous. This sensor actually gives you an indication of how high the smoke levels or the particle leaves are. It tells you when it becomes dangerous. And in many cases, it says that if this lasts for more than 24 hours, many people will start experiencing health issues. And the levels have been, to a degree now, like this morning, we had an extreme peak, which was a very short-lasting peak. The levels have been above what's considered when it gets unhealthy, days if not weeks now."

As viewers are aware, the Ministry of the Environment has been actively trying to discourage Belizeans from starting any kind of bonfires. They say that those warnings have been ignored, and so, they are going to take action against it. This afternoon, the CEO of the Ministry of Environment granted us an interview via telephone on the issue. He told us that a piece of legislation is being drafted to criminalize bonfires during the COVID-19 public health threat. Here's how he explained it to us:

Dr. Percival Cho - CEO, Ministry of Environment
"We have satellite information, from NASA, through a system that they call FIRMS. It's a system that is reliant on a network of satellites that orbit the earth every few minutes, 8 minutes in some cases, and in others, 16 minutes. And so, we have near real-time access to information on where fires are because these satellites are able to detect a hot spot on the Earth's service that is as small as a few feet. As long as it is hot enough, it's picked up by the satellites, it's sent to Nasa's system, and then it's placed online for access by the public."

"For the past few days, we've had about 70 or 80 fires per day. Over the Easter Holidays, the long weekend, we had up 117 fires in 1 day. And so, the height of the dry season right now. Not a drop of rain has fallen in Belmopan, and I don't think anywhere else either. And so, people are burning to prepare the land to plant. They're using fire to clear land. And where we're seeing these fires are adjacent to communities. In the case of Belmopan, they're to the east, between here and Cotton Tree. Some of them are to the north, across the river. Up in Orange Walk and Corozal, the fire points coincide with the cane fields. Down in the south, the fire points coincide with the milpas that indigenous folks burn. And out west, around San Ignacio, they coincide with the agricultural parcels as well."

"We put out a couple of advisories last week and the week before, advising and suggesting that farmers can begin to use other practices, especially during this State of Emergency. We have a respiratory disease circulating, and any stress on our lungs and any pollution in the air would only make people be under stress, their system, and their lungs, and that's not a system that you want."

"This is not a time to be breathing dirty air. And so, I had mentioned to you that we have been working on a piece of legislation that we're hoping to be passed. We're working in conjunction with the Solicitor General's Office. I understand that they're finalizing the drafting of this legislation, and basically, it would state that it is unlawful to light any fires to any vegetation or any waste, be it household or yard waste during the State of Emergency. So, anybody lighting fires, once the law is passed, would be in contravention of the law."

CEO Cho told us that this piece of legislation should be in its final draft form in a few days.

A recent advisory from the Ministry of Environment says, quote, "All persons are requested to immediately cease and desist from setting fire to any bush, milpa, field, pasture, grass or any household or yard waste during the state of emergency. There is a severe drought upon us. Smoke pollution from fires degrades the air quality and can negatively affect persons with asthma and other respiratory ailments. Especially, at this time we need to keep our lungs clean and healthy. Through satellite tracking, the Ministry can determine in real-time the location of bush fires anywhere in Belize. If you are burning, please heed this advisory and stop the burning immediately." End quote.

Just before the start of news, a resident of Santa Elena Town sent us this picture of smoke lingering over the twin towns in Cayo. The resident. said, quote, "The air is barely breathable at times because of the high particulate from burning Milpa and escaped fires."

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185 Fires Recorded in a Single Day!

Residents in western Belize, particularly in Belmopan and San Ignacio and Santa Elena have been complaining about smog that has been lingering going on for almost two weeks. They say a number of fires have been burning and the smoke is tough to deal with. Well, the Forest Department agrees and says that too many illegal fires have been burning and are cause for great concern. During this pandemic this is even more concerning for those who are COVID-19 positive because of the respiratory issues. Today we spoke with Forest Officer Raul Chun about this growing fire problem. Here’s the story:

Andrea Polanco, Reporting

This is what it looks like in Belmopan today – smog sitting over the capital city. It can also been seen further west. But this has been accumulating for past weeks. This morning, air quality tools showed that the air was not suitable for breathing in parts of the country. But why is this? Well, the Forestry Department says that many have been burning across the country, with a high number recorded in the, Orange Walk and Toledo Districts. The Forest Department says over a hundred fires were recorded on a single day this month.

Raul Chun, Forest Officer, Forest Department

“We are seeing a lot of fires in Belize, unprecedented numbers. We have a map showing the heat points we have registered since the start of this year and so I think on April ninth we had registered a total of one hundred and seventeen points. Just this week, I think April fifteenth, we detected a total of one hundred and eighty-five heat points in Belize.  As it relates to agricultural fires, the forest department is not issuing any burn permits as it relates to fires that are used as a management tool in the management of forests. So, really, all these fires that are ongoing are what we consider illegal and should not be happening.”

The fire season in Belize is usually is from January 15th to June 15th. It’s dry season that’s seeing extreme temperatures and as the country experiences drought conditions – it is the perfect set up for fires to go wild and into forested areas. Forest Officer Raul Chun says that people are starting fires for different reasons. Many of these fires go uncontrolled because of poor fire management practices.

Raul Chun

“People are actually burning for agricultural activities and we suspect that some of the fires are basically started by hunters and also people who are engaged in burning yard waste or the solid waste. And these practices are not done with preventative measures so we have fires escaping and getting into forested areas.”

A high number of fires burning across the country pose serious risks, and when these fires go uncontrolled the hazards to the public and the wider environment increase.

Raul Chun

“Really it doesn’t take much for the fire to actually spread and getting into private property and protected areas. It can threaten buildings, agricultural produce, and also threaten the natural wildlife and the natural areas.”

The high number of recorded fires shows that many people are still moving around and are not adhering to the SOE regulations. And a likely reason is because they are taking advantage of the fact that private and public sector management personnel are not on the ground because of the quarantine.

Raul Chun

“The Forest Department is not listed as an entity that provides essential service and so we believe that is what is happening at this time that people are taking advantage of the absence of the personnel that normally deals with fires.  So, we are trying to coordinate with the other law enforcement agencies that are actually operational to try to have them address these environmental issues.”

The Forestry Department now calls on the public to cease and desist the lighting of fires. We were made to understand that by early next week regulations will be put in place to address this growing problem. Reporting for News Five, I’m Andrea Polanco.

Environmental Experts Weigh In on Fire Increase!

As you heard earlier in the newscast, the Forest Department is facing a growing problem with fires across the country. And there may be regulations coming as early as next week to try to put a stop to this issue. Today we also got commentary from other experts in the field who shared why this issue is of grave concern.

Jan Meerman, Technical Advisor, Monitoring Biodiversity & Climate Change in Selva Maya Project (Belize)

“This morning was high particle count. What the sensors are doing is to collect he particles from the air. The particles can be from anything; from industry from dust and from within Belize because we don’t have heavy industry pollution, it is from smoke. Smoke is also particles. With particles, it is increasing clear that it is harmful to your health.   The reason why it was higher than usual this morning is because there are still a number of fires around Belmopan and they keep burning during the night and if there is no wind then the smoke doesn’t go anywhere. So, it is particularly heavy this morning but once the breeze came up, it kind of dissipated. It is still too high to be considered not harmful.    People are used to saying it is just smoke or just busy that is burning but it is not healthy. If you have seen the site, you can go online and see the current status, it warns you if this condition lasts more than twenty four hours it is a health issue. We have been in this smoke now for one or two weeks, so this is definitely a health issue.”

Kamille Pennil, CITED Coordinator, Wildlife Conservation Society

“We see the occurrence of fires happening every year especially during the dry season and notice that the fires are really peaking this year. So, it is making record and it is the highest amount of fires we have seen over the past few years. This is alarming to everybody because one, we know the effects of fires; it destroys habit and wild-life which would lead to a decrease of biodiversity and then of course it is a hazard to people’s home and human life.”

Raul Chun, Forest Officer, Forestry Department

“We have developed a contingency plan to see if we can start addressing some of these fires. The plan is pending approval and if we do get approval, you will probably start seeing us responding to these fires and trying to get a handle on what’s going on.”

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