Venezuela wildfires exacerbated by institutional collapse, experts say

May 14, 2024

Experts cite institutional failures amid Venezuela’s record-breaking wildfires

Since the start of the year, Venezuela has experienced record-breaking wildfires.

According to reports, these fires have affected national parks and even reached the capital, Caracas.

Experts estimate that up to 2 million hectares (4.94 million acres) of land have already burned in 2024.

Higher temperatures, drought, and a lack of fire-tolerant plants have intensified the fires, which have been worsened by institutional failures, as reported by Tony Frangie Mawad on Mongabay.

In early March, wildfires ravaged the savannas of Canaima National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Bolivar.

The fires reached the Auyantepui, one of the park’s iconic tabletop mountains, burning around 1,100 hectares (about 2,720 acres).

Local reports indicate that only 12 poorly equipped firefighters were deployed.

Rainfall eventually subdued the flames.

High temperatures and drought

Higher temperatures and severe drought have played a major role in the intensity of the fires.

Emilio Vilanova, a tropical forest engineer at the Wildlife Conservation Society, said: “The transition between the rainy and dry seasons has become more extreme because of rising temperatures.” Vilanova estimated that almost 2 million hectares (4.94 million acres) of land have burned so far in 2024.

Most wildfires in Venezuela are human-made, according to Rafael Lozada, an emeritus ecology professor at the University of the Andes.

He explained: “Throughout the tropics, people use fires for agricultural purposes.” Higher temperatures and drought have increased the amount of dried vegetation, exacerbating the fires’ intensity.

Institutional failures

Experts attribute the worsening fires to Venezuela’s institutional failures.

Rafael Lozada highlighted the impact of political and economic issues on firefighting capabilities.

He noted that the merger of forest firefighters with urban firefighters in 2021 weakened the response to forest fires.

“Firefighters trained for structural fires are not necessarily trained for forest fires,” Lozada said.

Additionally, brigades against fires and community training have diminished, and firefighters lack proper equipment.

Vilanova emphasized the need for serious policies to manage and control fires.

He stated: “High temperatures and drought are combining with a lack of serious policies to manage and control fires.” The government’s response has been to politicize the issue, blaming the fires on “fascists” and attributing the electric crisis to climate change.

Impact on livelihoods and environment

The fires have destroyed local livelihoods and significant forest areas.

In March, fires ravaged Caribbean pine plantations in Uverito, eastern Venezuela, affecting around 36,400 hectares (almost 90,000 acres).

Lozada described it as “the worst fire in the history of the plantation.” Authorities did not prepare firebreaks, leading to the evacuation of 315 families.

Bibiana Bilbao, a researcher of tropical savannas and fire ecology at Simón Bolívar University, stressed the importance of managing fires.

She said: “There has to be prevention and [natural] fuel has to be managed.” Vilanova also called for a serious strategy for climate change mitigation and adaptation, with a focus on fire management.

FSJA comment

The ongoing wildfires in Venezuela highlight the complex interplay between environmental conditions and institutional responses.

The combination of higher temperatures, severe drought, and lack of fire-tolerant vegetation has created an environment ripe for intense wildfires.

The institutional collapse, marked by inadequate firefighting resources and poor planning, has exacerbated the situation, leading to widespread destruction.

Effective wildfire management requires not only addressing immediate firefighting needs but also implementing long-term strategies for prevention and adaptation.

The integration of forest and urban firefighting units, without proper training and equipment, illustrates a critical gap in preparedness.

Additionally, the politicization of natural disasters can divert attention from necessary structural reforms.

Looking forward, there is a clear need for comprehensive policies that consider the changing climate and its impact on fire dynamics.

Community engagement and training, investment in firefighting infrastructure, and environmental planning are essential components of a robust wildfire management strategy.

The situation in Venezuela serves as a reminder of the importance of resilience and adaptability in the face of environmental challenges.

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