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Forest Fires Devastate Parts of Southern Mexico - 2003-04-25

Hundreds of forest fires are devastating large parts of Mexico's southern forest lands and environmentalists are concerned about both short-term and long-term effects on local populations as well as animals and plants in the fire zones. However government authorities are stepping up efforts to contain the fires while waiting for seasonal rains to start.

Dry, windy conditions in much of southern and central Mexico are to blame for this year's devastating fires and the rainy season, which might offer some relief, is still almost two months away. There have been more than 2,600 fires reported so far this year, with more than 300 raging at the moment. The fires have burned 110,000 hectares of land so far, much of it in sensitive rain forest regions in the southern states of Chiapas, Oaxaca and Yucatan.

Smoke from the fires is causing widespread respiratory problems and eye irritation for people living in the areas nearby.

National Forestry Commission President Alberto Cardenas said more than 11,000 firefighters at work in the affected zones, backed by specially equipped helicopters. "He said the government is bringing in more helicopters to dump water and fire-suppressing chemicals on the conflagrations," he said. "There are seven such helicopters already deployed in the southern states. Worst-hit are Chiapas, which accounts for more than 37 percent of this year's fire damage so far, and Oaxaca, where flames have scorched protected forest reserves and pasture land."

Mr. Cardenas said the fire danger is not limited to the south, however, since drought conditions and strong winds are also contributing to the problem in states throughout Mexico. Fires have been reported in the central state of Guerrero and in the north-central state of Zacatecas. He said the El Nino weather phenomenon may be partly to blame for the dry conditions and the winds that spread the fires.

Environmentalists also blame human negligence for some of the fires. They are calling on the government to do more to educate people about practices that can cause fires. One problem they cite is the old tradition of farmers using fire to clear crop land. They also say large forest and field fires can be caused by such things as tossed cigarettes, neglected camp fires and broken glass, which can magnify sunlight to produce fire.