If you live in the Cayo District, you're probably used to the sight and scent of smoke hanging in the air. The fire season began on February 15th, and thanks to the fuel load left behind by Hurricane Lisa, fires have been raging particularly in the Central Belize area. And while those fires have threatened - and in some cases even destroyed homes and properties, the smoke has been carried by the wind to the western district.

But the fires aren't igniting themselves, and most of the time they are set illegally. And once they get out of control, it severely affects the air quality.

Today, Courtney Menzies spoke with the Chief Forest Officer about this ongoing problem. Here is her story.

Central America is on fire - this screenshot shows all the fires that have burned in the region over the past week alone.

And in the country specifically, it's the Belize and Cayo District that are burning most intensely .

This is the sight that San Ignacio residents woke up to this morning - heavy smoke hanging in the air.

But it's not just them, the entire west has been smothered, particularly over the past two months. The Chief Forest Officer told us the reason for the smog today:

Wilbur Sabido, Chief Forest Officer
"What we've seen over the past three months is that Cayo District really comes in second in terms of the number of fires. Belize District is the culprit in terms of the majority of the fires over the past three months being generated there. And so what is happening is that as a result of the fires, the smoke that is generated because of the easterly to westerly winds. We see the smoke actually coming over the Belize District but actually settling in the Cayo District, more specifically in the San Ignacio/Santa Elena area."

But not only is the smoke choking the Cayo residents, the wildfires are destroying crops as well.

Wilbur Sabido, Chief Forest Officer
"The first being the smoke of course which has multiple health impacts especially for individuals that suffer from respiratory illnesses, asthma especially, they have problem breathing. The second really is the threat of the fire to property and the livelihood of individuals as well. We have many complaints from individuals, farmers really, whose crops are actually being affected. In the south especially, over the past couple days received a report where a wildfire was burning through cacao plantations in the south. Up north, in the Maya forest corridor we have seen fires actually razing through the savannah and affecting the habitat that wildlife depend on."

It's one of the most active fire seasons Belize has seen in recent years, made even worse by Hurricane Lisa. And with over 2,000 fires reported last month alone, Sabido says this year's statistics have tripled, and there's only so much they can handle Sith limited resources.

Wilbur Sabido, Chief Forest Officer
"Based on the data that we are able to collect and we rely really on NASA and our colleagues in Mexico who have a system that can basically provide the data of an early fire alert system and based out of that we've seen that in April for instance, just throughout the country we have seen 2,500 incidences of fire where last year we saw reported 962. And as we go down in March we see a similar sort of statistic where this year it's three times that."

"Right now for instance our Forest Department and FCD the NGO conservation group are actually fighting a fire in Vaca and we had to prioritize in terms of which fire we'll fight because we've identified over ten different fires scattered throughout the Vaca and so it's that process of prioritizing which fire is of greatest threat, in that particular instance the ecosystem and the ecosystem health, that is where we focused our efforts."

But what's causing these fires? The majority of them are intentionally set, either by farmers, hunters, or just those who want to be mischievous. The problem is that most of the fires are set illegally - either during the hottest part of the day, or without a permit - and they blaze out of control.

So now, the Forest Department is pleading to the public to be more mindful - and to report anyone who isn't.

Wilbur Sabido, Chief Forest Officer
"I think that indeed what we need to look at is if we catch anyone, we penalize them, and to also have the public report on individuals we see setting fires because at the end because the possibility of a wildfire that is intentionally set getting away in terms of being uncontrollable, it affects everyone."

"If again you're in the rural area and you do need to burn to clear around your property because either of mosquitos, snakes, or whatever it is you need to, you can burn, but do it in the evening when the fires burns low, it's not too hot, it's less windy and so the risk of the fire getting away and affecting your neighbor is much less."

But for the everyday person, Sabido said there's not much else they can do to prevent being smoked out inside their own homes as the fire season continues to rage.

And today, the Forest Department sent out a press release with reminders for setting fires, particularly for farmers that must burn for agricultural purposes. Some of the tips include consulting with the Ministry of Agriculture before setting fires, installing fire lines at least six feet wide around fields, keeping sufficient water and manpower to control and contain the burns, and using a seven day weather forecast to plan.

Additionally, farmers are reminded not to burn during the hottest part of the day and not to leave fires unattended.

For other residents, they should dispose of cigarette butts and glass bottles in adequate places, ensure that campfires are completely extinguished, and to not set fires to garbage disposal sites.

Channel 7