New tactics needed as wildfires intensify across South America

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But the country is not alone in suffering from out-of-control fires. In Argentina’s Patagonia, fires in Los Alerces National Park burned more than 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres), and in Colombia, fires destroyed more than 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) in January.

According to the Copernicus Atmospheric Monitoring Service, 2023 was the year of severe wildfires in South America. He said the carbon emissions from wildfires in parts of Chile and Argentina in the first two months were the second highest in the past 20 years.

The majority of wildfires in South America are caused by human activities. Chile’s fire service CONAF says 99.7 percent of fires are caused by “carelessness or negligence” by humans. Meanwhile, local authorities blame a campervan for the Los Alerces fire in Argentina.

In recent years, the problem of fire has become more serious. Scientists point to a combination of El Niño, a weather pattern that increases ocean temperatures in the Pacific Ocean and affects weather around the world, and the climate crisis, creating conditions for fires to spread out of control.

Raul Cordero, a climate scientist at the Universities of Santiago and Groningen in Chile, said both played a big role in the recent fires. “The simultaneous occurrence of El Niño events and climate change-induced heat waves increased the local fire risk and contributed decisively to intense fire activity.”

Francisco de la Barrera, an associate professor at the University of Concepción, said the climate crisis was “a big part of the equation”, causing long-term droughts across the region and increasing the risk of rapidly spreading fires. “I think we’re entering a new era of megafires that we’ve never seen before,” he says.

Chile’s Environment Minister Maisa Rojas said the climate crisis is contributing to these phenomena becoming “more frequent and more intense.” “Climate change is not a future problem,” she says. “That is the concern of today. We are already experiencing the effects of this phenomenon.”

Conditions in other regions also come into play. The areas where fires broke out in Chile this week include large, densely populated forests made up of exotic trees cultivated for the timber trade. This caused the fire to spread quickly, Della Barrera said.

The government has increased funding for fire prevention and response, but some critics say more needs to be done to prevent fires from occurring.

South American countries have introduced new measures to prevent wildfires and passed environmental laws. But critics argue that implementation has been spotty at times. Chile, for example, was already investing £80m a year in its firefighting efforts, but added a further £40m after last year’s deadly fires.

Nevertheless, some experts say the events of the past few weeks show that the funds are not enough. “Resources alone don’t determine outcomes,” Cordero said. Despite an early warning system, some residents ignored evacuation orders due to concerns for the safety of their homes, he said. “Some people feared thieves more than fire,” he says.

Estefania González, deputy director of Greenpeace Chile, said no progress has been made on proposed legislation to restrict land use changes in fire-affected areas. The most serious danger, she said, is in areas where humans and flammable plant species coexist, areas that are “not taken into account in Chile’s land-use planning policies.”

“There are still no regulations that include fire hazards in building design and construction,” she says.

Mr. Rojas highlighted some of the government’s efforts against fires, noting that the number of fires has decreased compared to previous years.

“But it affects urban areas and has a very significant impact on people and their homes,” she says. “The government is acting swiftly and in a coordinated manner to continue fighting the fire and get people the help they need.”

In Argentina, successive governments have passed environmental laws, such as the General Environmental Law and the Forest and Glacier Protection Law, but they have not been fully adopted by local authorities.

Ana Di Pangracio, director of biodiversity at Argentina’s Environment and Natural Resources Foundation, said that while recent funding increases were welcome, fire management procedures were not properly implemented in some areas and that It is stated that in some cases it is not clear whether the authorities are at the center of the investigation. The government is supposed to distribute the funds.

“It’s not just about money,” she says. “There needs to be a paradigm shift when it comes to fires. We have to move from a war-like approach to emergencies to more preventative management. Otherwise we will always be behind the fire. You will have to run away.”

Governments need to warn people to act more responsibly, such as not lighting fires during droughts, but they also need to support other preventive approaches, she says.

Argentina’s new president, Javier Millei, is also trying to roll back some environmental protections.

Di Pangracio said: “Fires are very serious and problematic in South America. Of course, climate change doesn’t help at all because we know that it makes natural phenomena like floods and droughts more extreme. It’s even more worrying when you have a president who claims he doesn’t believe in change.”

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