Firefighters in Dominican Republic Struggle to Contain Three-Week-Old Forest Fire

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (AP) -- Hundreds of firefighters dug trenches around the perimeter of the highest peak in the Dominican Republic on Tuesday, trying to contain a forest fire that broke out nearly three weeks ago on its drought-stricken slopes, an official said.

The fire has consumed at least 63 square kilometers (24 square miles) of forest, but the devastation might turn out to be more extensive once a thorough survey of the area can be done, said Environment Secretary Max Puig, giving the government's first damage estimates.

Clouds at the high elevation and smoke from the fire have hindered firefighting efforts since the fire began March 11 in the lower part of Duarte Mountain in the Jose del Carmen Ariza National Park, some 75 miles (120 kilometers) northwest of the capital Santo Domingo.

The popular hiking area around the 3,175-meter (10,416-foot) Duarte Mountain has been closed since then. Puig said authorities were still investigating what caused the fire.

About 700 firefighters and soldiers were close to containing the blaze by digging trenches around its perimeter, while two Venezuelan helicopters dropped retardant on hot spots. Authorities expect the fire to burn itself out within a few days unless new focal points pop up outside the trenches, Puig said.

The worst drought in five years has withered vegetation and made forests in the Caribbean nation particularly flammable, said Miguel Campusano, forecast director for the National Weather Office.

Campusano said rainfall between January and April was normally low, but this year it had been almost nonexistent. Campusano said in the central mountain range only 2.7 millimeters (0.1 inches) of rain fell in February, far below the average 116 millimeters (4.6 inches) for that month.

Campusano attributed the drought to the El Nino weather pattern, which he said was causing warmer-than-normal sea surface temperatures that reduced storm conditions and thus overall precipitation.

The drought has also affected other Caribbean countries.

Little rain has fallen in western Puerto Rico since November.

In nearly a month, some 250 acres (100 hectares) of forest have been consumed in three spots in the State Forest of Maricao, in west central Puerto Rico, said fire department chief German Ocasio. Some small farmhouses have been burned, but no injuries or deaths have been reported.

Although the fires have been contained, they will probably not be completely extinguished until expected April rains.

For the past month, many bushfires have broken out in St. Elizabeth parish, a farming region in southern Jamaica. Several farms have been burned, but no injuries or deaths have been reported.