Mt. Banahaw pilgrims may face raps

Posted at 03/20/14 3:24 PM

Fire broke out on Mount Banahaw in Sariaya, Quezon, on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Jerome Quejano

5 rescued, 6 others remain missing

MANILA (2nd UPDATE) -- Five people were confirmed rescued on Thursday after they got trapped on Mt. Banahaw that was hit by fire, local officials said.

They could face charges for violating a law banning people on the protected mountain.

Six other pilgrims who are believed to have gone up the mountain remain missing, as of posting.

Forest ranger Magtanggol Barrion earlier said that 6 men, 4 women, and a child were found at a camp site along the mountain's "Tatlong Tangke" trail.

The Quezon Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council (PDRRMC) later said a total of 13 people were rescued from the mountain.

However, latest reports indicate that only 5 people, mostly women, have been confirmed rescued so far.

The PDRRMC said the backpackers, believed to be members of a sect engaged in mysticism, might have lit candles, causing the fire.

According to Dr. Henry Buzar, head of the Quezon PDRRMC, said people who went up the mountain might face charges for violating Republic Act No. 9847 that sets Mt. Banahaw off limits to the public.

They may also face charges of environmental damage, he said.

The area where the fire hit is known as "Durungawan." It is covered with grass and trees, and is around 1,900 meters above sea level.

The government's National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council said an estimated 10-hectare (24.7-acre) patch of forest near the summit was destroyed.

According to the Sariaya fire station, the blaze is no longer expected to spread to other areas. Authorities said their latest aerial inspection on the mountain showed that the land was already moist.

Officials are still investigating the cause of the fire.

Backpackers have been banned from the 2,158-meter (7,080-foot) peak since 2004 to protect the mountain.

Several small sects that worship at caves and springs on its lower slopes continue to have access there.

Wildlife officials of the environment department told AFP Banahaw's forests, including a 10,900-hectare protected zone, are home to scores of animal species found only in the Philippines, including a species of cloud rat discovered only in 2004.

However, they said they have yet to receive a report of the extent of the damage.

Ivan Herzano, project officer of the non-government group Foundation for the Philippine Environment, told AFP that despite access restrictions, forest rangers lacked the capability to track all persons who may be illegally entering the protected area.

"Most likely it was a man-made fire," he told AFP.

Hunters illegally looking for game could have lit dry litter on the forest floor by carelessly discarding cigarette butts, he added.

The foundation has recently completed a 60-hectare reforestation project on the mountain, which has protected zones that are off limits to human habitation as well as "multiple-use zones" on its lower slopes reserved for locals, Herzano added. -- Reports from Junry Hidalgo, dzMM; Doris Bigornia, ABS-CBN News; with Agence France-Presse