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Emil A. Cherrington Antonio H. Clemente Betzy E. Hernández Bessy C. García Marcelo O. Oyuela Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America & the Caribbean (CATHALAC) 111 City of Knowledge, Panama City, Panama TEL: (507) 317-3200 • May 2011





Fires in Central America and the DR (2001-2010)

INTRODUCTION The Mesoamerican region stretching from southern Mexico to Panama is critical to global biodiversity conservation efforts. While the isthmus represents only 0.7% of earth’s landmass, by stark contrast, some 9.4% of the world’s terrestrial species are found there (Barry 2003, CI 2006). Hectare for hectare, the region is more bio-diverse than even Brazil, where 11.4% of earth’s terrestrial species are found on 5.7% of the world’s landmass (Lewinsohn & Prado 2005). Of concern is that Mesoamerica’s globally significant biological diversity is vulnerable to both natural disasters and human impacts. Year after year, hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, fires and drought ravage the region (Anderson et al 2008). Recognizing that satellite-based technologies can play a significant role in the monitoring of environmental phenomena and response to natural disasters, the region’s governments requested the development of the Regional Visualization & Monitoring System (SERVIR), which was formally inaugurated on February 3, 2005 at the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America & the Caribbean (CATHALAC) in Panama. SERVIR is jointly implemented by CATHALAC, NASA, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID),

1 For this reason, many times these are referred to “hotspots” in place of “fires” although the University of Maryland’s standard term is “active fire detections.”

and other partner institutions. SERVIR constitutes a platform for the observation, forecasting and modeling of environmental processes in Mesoamerica and the Dominican Republic and provides information freely to the region’s decision-makers, scientists, and the general public via the Internet at Particularly important to regional environmental monitoring efforts is the influence of fire, which constitutes an especially significant threat to Mesoamerica’s biodiversity. In that context, SERVIR makes much use of the Rapid Response System developed for the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), and the University of Maryland’s Fire Information for Management System (FIRMS). Flying some 705km above the earth on NASA’s Terra and Aqua satellites, MODIS can detect fires and other ‘hotspots’1 such as gas flares and volcanic eruptions (Lillesand et al 2007, UMD 2007). MODIS takes snapshots of Mesoamerica about four times daily, allowing for detection of fires occurring at set intervals, when these fires are not obscured by cloud cover or by thick smoke (UMD 2007). This study reviews the past decade’s worth of satellite-based fire data for Central America and the Dominican Republic.

Fires in Central America and the DR (2001-2010)

METHODOLOGY Fire data for the region, from the MODIS sensor, were obtained through the University of Maryland’s Fire Information for Resource Management System, FIRMS (Davies et al 2009, NASA / UMD 2010). Prior to analysis, however, some filtering of the data was necessary. It should be noted that MODIS-Terra has effectively been collecting fire data since 2000, but its twin, MODIS-Aqua, did not become operational until in mid-2002 (Lillesand et al 2007). It was nonetheless useful to examine the entire decade’s worth of fire data. It should also be noted that the data sourced from FIRMS is a mix of data derived from two differing processing algorithms; these sets of data are referred to as MODIS Collections 4 and 5 (UMD 2007). To negate the likely errors of commission resultant from Collection 4, and to ensure a suitable degree of compatibility

between data derived from the two algorithms, only data with high estimated confidence values (at or exceeding 70%) have been selected for this analysis. Through spatial analysis in powerful geographic information systems (GIS) applications, fire detections can be combined with other data to trace detections, for instance, to which types of vegetative cover were burning. Whether such detections were occurring within national parks and other protected areas can also be assessed. Important caveats to recall are that (i) fires detected by MODIS on any given day are mere subsets of the total fires occurring, representing only ‘snapshots’ of fires occurring throughout the day, and (ii) clouds or thick smoke occlude fire detections (UMD 2007).


Fires in Central America and the DR (2001-2010)

6 2 All the fire data presented in the tables were extracted from the MODIS Collection 4 / 5 data obtained from the University of Maryland / FIRMS. Data were filtered in a GIS environment, as described above.

RESULTS Over the past decade, the MODIS sensors detected over 100,000 fires across Central America and the Dominican Republic (Davies et al 2009, NASA / UMD 2010), as illustrated in Table 1.

Table 1. Fires detected, by country2 Year 2001* 2002* 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 %

BZ 125 36 858 188 421 140 474 408 341 345 2.9%

CR 402 222 624 649 314 207 367 327 360 433 3.4%

DR 326 90 528 599 885 511 642 706 462 517 4.6%

Country GT HN 1,758 1,232 1,025 267 10,907 5,614 3,661 1,453 7,787 3,841 2,750 1,756 6,271 2,089 4,734 2,012 6,775 2,768 4,674 1,551 43.7% 19.6%

NI 875 382 3,470 2,389 2,683 1,450 1,218 1,639 2,043 1,900 15.7%

PN 452 259 1,168 1,444 418 647 700 762 1,223 439 6.5%

SV 390 216 491 873 461 364 421 271 401 352 3.7%

Total 5,560 2,497 23,660 11,256 16,810 7,825 12,182 10,859 14,373 10,211 115,233

ISO country codes were utilized as follows: BZ = Belize, CR = Costa Rica, DR = Dominican Republic, GT = Guatemala, HN = Honduras, NI = Nicaragua, PN = Panama, SV = El Salvador 3 Agricultural land refers to both cultivated land and to pastures. Forests include lands with high tree cover of the broadleaf, needle-leaf or mixed varieties. Other land cover includes all other land cover types not which are not forest or agricultural land.

The region’s three largest countries (Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua) which account for about 62% of the region’s area (some 351,000 km² of the region’s 568,000 km²) account - disproportionately - for roughly 79% of these annually recurring fires. For instance, where Guatemala makes up just over 19% of the region’s land mass, it generates almost 44% of the fires. In contrast,

Costa Rica represents 9% of the region’s land mass, but generated only 3.4% of the fires. Panama represents 13.2% of the region’s territory, but has likewise contributed only 3.7% of the region’s fires. The statistics on which land cover types have been impacted by fires are even more illustrative (Table 2).

Table 2. Fires detected, by land cover type3 Year 2001* 2002* 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 Total / %

Forest 1,174 379 8,798 2,589 6,511 2,357 4,283 3,739 4,943 3,064 37,837

21.1% 15.2% 37.2% 23.0% 38.7% 30.1% 35.2% 34.4% 34.4% 30.0% 32.8%

Land cover type Cropland 3,720 66.9% 1,792 71.8% 11,340 47.9% 7,348 65.3% 7,327 43.6% 4,554 58.2% 5,904 48.5% 5,325 49.0% 7,306 50.8% 5,238 51.3% 59,854 51.9%

Other 666 326 3,522 1,319 2,972 914 1,995 1,795 2,124 1,909 17,542

Total 12.0% 13.1% 14.9% 11.7% 17.7% 11.7% 16.4% 16.5% 14.8% 18.7% 15.2%

5,560 2,497 23,660 11,256 16,810 7,825 12,182 10,859 14,373 10,211 115,233

Fires in Central America and the DR (2001-2010)

Figure 1. Fires across Central America and the Dominican Republic in peak year of 2003

For the sake of differentiating the various land cover / vegetation types upon which such fires occur, these are stratified by land cover type in Table 2, above. The data indicate that over time, the overall incidence of detected fires is fluctuating, as is the incidence of agricultural fires and forest fires. In any event, in any given year, agricultural fires make up about half of fires detected, while forest fires have generally been upwards of 30% of fires detected. Over the ten years, fires on other types of land cover made up, on average about 15% of fires detected. These were likely savannah and shrubland fires. The data also indicate that 2003 had the worst fire season, with an estimated 23,660 fires detected (see Figure 1). According to the Climate Prediction Center of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmo-

spheric Administration (NOAA CPC 2011), the 2003 fire season occurred during an El Niùo Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event which had started the previous year. According to a 2005 United Nations Environment Programme report (UNEP/GRID Arendal 2005), ENSO events are known to cause drought conditions on Central America’s Pacific coast, which could have contributed to a dryer than normal fire season. Forest fires also peaked in 2003, comprising over 37% of all fires detected. The year 2005 was the second worst fire season, with almost 17,000 fires detected. While 2001 and 2002 appear to have been mild, it should be noted that the dual Aqua and Terra satellite platforms were not working until late 2002, so the lack of fires may be due to less imaging.



Fires in Central America and the DR (2001-2010)

In addition to being able to study the number of agricultural and forest fires, the satellite data also permits study of the relationship between agricultural fires and forest fires. Table 3 below, for instance, represents cases of forest fires occurring within 1km of the agricultural frontier.

Table 3. Number and proportion of forest fires near the agricultural frontier Year 2001* 2002* 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 Total / %

Number 430 160 2,899 965 1,909 804 1,293 1,049 1,559 967 12,035

% of Forest Fires 36.6% 42.2% 33.0% 37.3% 29.3% 34.1% 30.2% 28.1% 31.5% 31.6% 31.8%

What the data indicate are that a rather large proportion of forest fires occur near agricultural lands. On average, a third of forest fires occur near agricultural lands. This would seem to indicate that either (a) agricultural fires are escaping into nearby forests, or (b) farmers are increasingly clearing forest land for expansion of their farms. Meerman & Sabido (2001)’s review of the role of fire on Belize’s ecosystems, for instance, indicated that the former occurrence was rather common.

5 This is likely caused by the fact that not all protected areas are 100% forest, but often times represent other ecosystems. Hence, in 2005, the number of fires in protected areas actually exceeded the number of forest fires.

Another salient perspective is examining how protected areas are impacted by the region’s fires. Table 4 above presents that assessment. It can be seen, for instance, that over the past decade, fires in protected

areas represented on average almost 90% of detected forest fires. That figure has fluctuated from year to year. In 2001, for instance, protected area fires represented around twothirds of forest fires, but in 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010, fires in protected areas represented more than 90% of forest fires. As a caveat, it can also not be overemphasized that the number of fires reported for 2001 and 2002 were less than other years as there was only one satellite sensor (MODIS-Terra) detecting fires in those years as compared to 2003 onwards when both MODIS sensors (MODIS-Aqua and MODIS-Terra) were operating in conjunction. It should nevertheless go without saying that the lands within protected areas should not be burning, and the data from Table 4 can be interpreted as saying that most of the forest fires actually occur within the bounds of lands legally set aside for conservation purposes. In the light of those statistics, the logical conclusion is that protected areas across Central America and the Dominican Republic are under substantial pressure.

Table 4: Number and proportion of forest fires within protected areas Year 2001* 2002* 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 Total / %

Number 767 310 7,579 1,841 6,623 1,635 4,094 3,261 4,564 2,898 33,572

% of Forest Fires 65.3% 81.8% 86.1% 71.1% 101.7% 5 69.4% 95.6% 87.2% 92.3% 94.6% 88.7%

Fires in Central America and the DR (2001-2010)


CONCLUSIONS Satellite-based fire detection data from NASA’s MODIS sensors indicate that in the past decade, the incidence of fires across Central America and the Dominican Republic has varied from year to year, but has culminated in over 100,000 fires detected between 2001 and 2010. It should likewise be noted that because of the technical limitations of the satellite systems, the fires detected by MODIS represent a fraction of the fires that occurred. Nonetheless, for a relatively small region possessing significant forest resources and associated biodiversity, the relatively significant proportion of forest fires (32.8%) and the high proportion of forest fires within protected areas (88.7%) should be a cause for concern. Fires have been detected in recent years in many of the region’s protected areas, and this should draw the attention of land managers. In addition to examining the impact of fires in forests near agricultural lands, future analyses should also consider the potential impacts of roads on forest fires.

It is nonetheless promising that there exist platforms for the remote monitoring of forest fires and other types of environmental disasters. These include the collaborations between FIRMS, the MODIS Rapid Response System and SERVIR. The region’s Ministries of the Environment have been and continue to be important stakeholders in the implementation of SERVIR, and this report serves to provide a summary and interpretation of both regional and national fire trends. It is thus hoped that institutions in Belize will further take advantage of the simple and user-friendly satellite-based tools that are now available for monitoring of the environment – tools which were unavailable only a few years ago prior to the establishment of the Regional Visualization & Monitoring System, SERVIR.6 These tools provide the perspective of an ‘eye in the sky’ on the environment that would otherwise be unavailable.

6 For more information on SERVIR, please visit or contact


Fires in Central America and the DR (2001-2010)

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS This work was supported under NASA Contract No. NNM07AB02C with CATHALAC, through the generous support of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The earlier 2008 edition of this report was originally supported by USAID through Cooperative Agreement No. 596-A-00-06-00099-00 with CATHALAC. In particular, Carrie Stokes, Orlando Altamirano, Ruben Aleman, and Michelle Jennings of USAID must be acknowledged. Sincere thanks are also extended to Diane Davies, the Principal Investigator of FIRMS at the University of Maryland and Minnie Wong of the University of Maryland for providing the archived fire detection data utilized

in this study. CATHALAC Director Emilio Sempris, NASA Earth Science Division Director Michael Freilich, NASA Program Scientist for Biological Diversity and Program Manager for Ecological Forecasting Woody Turner, NASA SERVIR Project Director Daniel Irwin, and NASA SERVIR International Programs Director Gwendolyn Artis must also be acknowledged for their support, as should Eric Anderson and Africa Flores of the University of Alabama-Huntsville, the latter of whom provided extensive review of this document. Victor Hugo Ramos of Guatemala’s CONAP must likewise be acknowledged for his fire assessments of the PetÊn which inspired this report.

Fires in Central America and the DR (2001-2010)


REFERENCES Anderson, E.R., Cherrington, E.A., Tremblay-Boyer, L., Flores, A.I, and E. Sempris. 2008. “Identifying Critical Areas for Conservation using measures of Biodiversity and Climate Change in Central America, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic.” Biodiversity 9 (3 & 4): 89-99 Barry, P.L. 2003. “Mesoamerica Burning.” Science@NASA. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Washington, DC. Available online: Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para America Latina y el Caribe (CATHALAC) and National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA). 2007. “Preliminary Damage Assessment of the May 2007 Fires in the Mountain Pine Ridge Area, Belize.” Assessment developed for the Forest Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment of the Government of Belize. 39 pp. Available online: Conservation International (CI). 2006. “Biodiversity Hotspots: Mesoamerica.” Center for Applied Biodiversity Science. Washington, DC. Available online: Davies, D.K., Ilavajhala, S., Wong, M.M., and C.O. Justice. 2009. “Fire Information for Resource Management System: Archiving and Distributing MODIS Active Fire Data”. IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing 47 (1):7279. Lewinsohn, T.M. & Prado. 2005. “How Many Species Are There in Brazil?” Conservation Biology 19 (3): 619-62 Lillesand, T.M., Kiefer, R.W., and J.W. Chipman. 2007. Remote Sensing & Image Interpretation. Sixth Edition. Wiley & Sons. 756 pp. Meerman, J.C. & W. Sabido. 2001. “Central American Ecosystems Map: Belize.” Volumes I. Programme for Belize. Belize City, Belize. 28 pp. Meerman, J.C. 2005. “Belize Ecosystems Map: 2004 update.” Data set. National Protected Areas Policy & Systems Plan. Available online: National Aeronautics & Space Administration / University of Maryland. 2010. MODIS Hotspot / Active Fire Detections. Data set. MODIS Rapid Response Project, NASA/GSFC [producer], University of Maryland, Fire Information for Resource Management System [distributors]. Available online: National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration / Climate Prediction Center (NOAA CPC). 2011. “Cold & Warm Episodes by Season.” Available online: shtml United Nations Environment Proframme / GRID-Arendal. 2005. “Climate Impacts of El Niño Phenomenon in Latin America and the Caribbean.” UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library. Available online: go/graphic/climate_impacts_of_el_ni_o_phenomenon_in_latin_america_and_the_caribbean University of Maryland (UMD). 2007. “Fire Information for Resource Management System: Frequently Asked Questions.” Department of Geography, University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland. Available online: http://maps.

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Fires in Central America and the Dominican Republic