Intense fires threaten water supply and habitats in Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba

Intense fires threaten water supply and habitats in Mexico’s Pico de Orizaba

  • For four days in February an intense forest fire ravaged the border of Pico de Orizaba National Park in Mexico, with 40% of the affected area lying inside the protected park, preliminary data show.
  • Inhabitants of communities in the region say they fear forest fires will impact their water supply, which originates from the alpine forests and glacier on the Pico de Orizaba volcano.
  • Official data show an intense period of burning, with 500 fire-related events recorded throughout Mexico between Jan. 1 and Feb. 16, 2023.

Pico de Orizaba National Park is one of the most important protected areas in central Mexico. The park spans 19,000 hectares (47,000 acres), is home to a pine forest with endemic species, as well as the country’s highest volcano at 5,636 meters (18,491 feet), and supplies water to many communities in the states of Puebla and Veracruz.

The protected natural area currently faces several threats, such as illegal logging, agricultural expansion and, in particular, fires. During the third week of February alone, a fire devastated almost 250 hectares (620 acres) of paramo alpine shrubland and forests of oyamel fir (Abies religiosa) and highland pine (Pinus hartwegii), a species that grows at elevations above 3,000 m (9,800 ft).

Due to the extent of land affected, the office that manages the national park classified this forest fire as the most intense observed since 2020.

The yellow dots show the fire alerts recorded in Pico de Orizaba National Park between Jan. 24 and Feb. 24, 2023. Image courtesy of Global Forest Watch.

The spark: Agricultural burning

The forest fire in Pico de Orizaba National Park began on Feb. 20 in the ejido, or communal farmland, of San Martín Temaxlaquilla. It then spread to San Antonio Atzitzintla, near the Sierra Negra volcano, in the state of Puebla, before reaching Encuentro Valley in Pico de Orizaba, which sits at an elevation of 3,000 m.

Raúl Álvarez Oseguera, director of Pico de Orizaba National Park, said poorly controlled agricultural burning was the cause of the fire, which spread rapidly due to strong and dry winds.

Preliminary data showed 40% of the burned areas were inside the park boundaries, though this is still being verified by Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR) as it carries out an assessment of the total damage.

An image of the fire captured along the border of Pico de Orizaba National Park. Image courtesy of the Puebla Ministry of the Environment.

Local firefighters, members of the national park’s two fire brigades, more than 100 volunteers, including communal landholders and local farmers, and personnel from CONAFOR and the National Guard were involved in fighting the fire. They worked more than 18 hours during the first days of the fire to help with mitigation-related tasks in hard-to-reach areas, while community members donated food and supplies for the firefighting brigades.

Oseguera said this year is expected to be abnormally dry, so residents and tourists are being asked to take extreme precautions with the use of firewood in the forest area.

The last serious fire that swept through the region was in 2020, when COVID-19 lockdown restrictions were still in force. At that time, fires burned 450 hectares (1,100 acres) of the national park and killed two people: Guillermo Gustavo Chávez, president of the Atzitzintla communal land commission, and Valentín Sergio Chávez Romero, president of the communal land monitoring council Since then, the area hasn’t experienced any more fires of such intensity.

Work to contain the fire. Image courtesy of the Puebla Ministry of the Environment.

A lack of water in the wake of the fire

The national park’s environmental management program lists five rivers that originate high on the slopes of the Pico de Orizaba volcano: the Blanco, Cotaxtla, Jamapa, Metlac and Orizaba rivers. All are part of the wider watershed formed by the Jamapa and Papaloapan rivers, while their distributaries feed into the Balsas River Basin, which benefits Tehuacán Valley in the state of Puebla, as well as Ciudad Serdán, Tlachichuca and other urban and rural areas in the region.

Within the national park’s area of influence, defined as a band that radiates out 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the park boundary, lie 23 communities from five municipalities in Veracruz and 17 communities from three municipalities in Puebla.

Communal landholders from the communities closest to the area where the fire occurred say they’re concerned that the fire destroyed trees more than 30 m (100 ft) tall, which they say will affect the water supply in their region.

José Luis López Castillo, municipal president of Atzitzintla in Puebla, told Mongabay Latam that the fire was atypical; previous blazes had never been seen lapping at a tree canopy 30 m high. Unique species in the area, such as the highland pine, can no longer grow fast in the wake of fire damage, López Castillo said, so the fire created serious impacts.

Some of the communities based around the volcano of Pico de Orizaba. Red denotes where the fire was recorded at the end of February 2023. Image courtesy of the Puebla Ministry of the Environment.

According to López Castillo, the fire will affect the entire region, with important water sources that stem from the Pico de Orizaba volcano, and that supply several communities, at risk of being impacted. This could exacerbate the already intensifying pressure on water sources in the region, given how the glaciers here are also diminishing, further threatening communities’ water supplies.

Since 2021, the Veracruz Agency for Communication and News (AVC Noticias) has documented the retreat of the northern glacier atop Pico de Orizaba, at an altitude of more than 5,000 m (16,400 ft). In an investigative report, it found that this glacier, one of the last in Mexico, had lost 71% of its surface area between 1958 and 2017.

The restoration of the area where the fire occurred is another issue that worries communal landholders, as it’s located on a hard-to-reach hillside, which will make it difficult to carry out the work required. Some trees will take more than 10 years to grow, and wildlife such as hares, coyotes and birds will be affected. The park management lists other species that can be found in the national park, include wildcats, weasels, rabbits, badgers, raccoons, hawks, bluebirds, mockingbirds and hummingbirds, all of which may be impacted.

Creation of firebreaks to prevent fire from spreading to other forest areas. Image courtesy of the Puebla Ministry of the Environment.

A national park under pressure

In addition to the fires, Pico de Orizaba National Park already faces threats from illegal logging, invasive species and agricultural encroachment, with the latter stemming from the 40 communities in eight municipalities living just outside the park boundaries. CONAFOR considers the natural area a critical forest zone.

Data from the Global Forest Watch platform show that the park lost 70 hectares (173 acres) of tree cover between 2001 and 2021. To restore the forest, work is needed beyond recovering the fire-affected area; for example, a screwworm infestation impacting the forest will also need to be tackled. According to López Castillo, Puebla state’s Ministry of the Environment is encouraging the area’s communal landholders to organize themselves in carrying out a forest cleanup program to rid the forest of both pests and possible fuel for forest fires.

Official figures from the National Commission of Natural Protected Natural Areas (CONANP) show that between 2015 and 2020, 67 fires were recorded in Pico de Orizaba National Park, affecting around 3,400 hectares (8,400 acres), of which 500 hectares (1,200 acres) were forest land.

The worst fires were recorded in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 1,147 hectares (2,834 acres) of forest impacted. Most of this damage was the result of uncontrolled agricultural-related fires and illegal logging.

Oseguera, the Pico de Orizaba National Park director, said 16 fires damaged 515 hectares (1,273 acres) of land in 2022, though the entire area was not lost, as many fires were surface fires that didn’t raze entire trees. The number of fires in the area that year was slightly lower than the annual average for such events, as was the total area affected.

Fire control crews. Image courtesy of the Puebla Ministry of the Environment.

Forest fires have greater impacts beyond those that are immediately visible. They can leave soils more prone to erosion, trees more vulnerable to pests and disease, groundwater tables affected, and wildlife habitat damaged.

The fire that burned between Feb. 20 and 24 in Pico de Orizaba was one of the first events of the forest fire season that began in January and was expected to be intense due to the dry conditions in the country. Between Jan. 1 and Feb. 16, 500 forest fires had already been recorded across Mexico, with 10,275 hectares (25,390 acres) damaged. According to CONAFOR data, 97% of the area had grasslands, leaf litter, shrubs and bushes, and 3% had mature trees and regrowth. The total figure is 36% higher than during the same period in 2022.

Until the second week of February, the central region of Mexico had the highest number of fires. At present, Jalisco, Puebla, Michoacán, the state of Mexico and Veracruz have the highest number of events.


Banner image: The fire lasted just over three days and affected around 250 hectares (620 acres). Image courtesy of the Puebla Ministry of the Environment.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on Feb. 27, 2023.

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