Why is Latin America experiencing unprecedented wildfires?

February 16, 2024
wildfire firefighters

Understanding the causes behind Latin America’s wildfires

Latin America has been witnessing a series of devastating wildfires, with Chile experiencing the deadliest wildfires in its history, resulting in over 130 fatalities this year.

Similarly, Colombia saw wildfire smoke encroach upon Bogotá last month, challenging the city’s cold, wet climate reputation.

Furthermore, Argentina faced a wildfire that destroyed a forest recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

These incidents add to the destruction caused by record-setting fires in the Amazon in October 2023, highlighting a disturbing trend where wildfires are becoming increasingly prevalent in regions where they were historically rare, according to Francisco de la Barrera, an environmental scientist at the University of Concepción in Chile, as reported by Nature.

The role of climate change and human actions

Scientists attribute the increasing frequency and intensity of these wildfires to a mix of climate change, the introduction of non-native tree species, and the effects of strong El Niño climate patterns.

Maisa Rojas Corradi, Chile’s environment minister and a climatologist, pointed out that the past decade saw 16 megafires in Chile, coinciding with record-high temperatures in central Chile.

Wenju Cai, a climatologist at CSIRO in Melbourne, Australia, noted that climate change has contributed to reduced cloud cover and shrinking glaciers in the Chilean Andes, leading to higher temperatures.

Moreover, the current El Niño pattern has exacerbated these conditions, intensifying the wildfires.

The impact of non-native trees

The introduction of non-native trees has also played a significant role in the spread of wildfires.

In the twentieth century, eucalyptus trees were planted around Bogotá to combat erosion, but these trees have since provided ample fuel for fires due to their flammable bark.

Trent Penman, a bushfire scientist at the University of Melbourne, remarked on the unintended consequences of such tree planting.

Similarly, in Chile, the expansion of eucalyptus plantations has been linked to the severity of recent fires, with forest plantation areas in the Valparaiso region doubling between 2006 and 2021.

A call for preventive measures

The situation has led to calls for more proactive measures to mitigate wildfire risks.

Tania Marisol González, a conservation ecologist at Bogotá’s Pontifical Javeriana University, highlighted the need for Latin America to take preventive actions, such as reducing fuel loads and creating firebreaks.

Moreover, replacing invasive trees with native species less prone to catching fire could help reduce fire risks around cities.

Rojas emphasized the importance of creating biodiverse landscapes with protected water sources and firebreak areas, especially in urban-rural interfaces, to mitigate the impact of fires on communities and nature.

However, de la Barrera warns that implementing these measures will require significant legal and regulatory changes, indicating a long road ahead in making Latin America more resilient to wildfires.

FSJA Comment

The recent surge in wildfires across Latin America underscores a complex interplay of climatic, environmental, and human factors, as highlighted by Nature.

The deadly conflagrations in Chile, Colombia, and Argentina serve as a stark reminder of the multifaceted nature of wildfire risks.

The role of climate change, alongside the introduction of non-native tree species and the exacerbating effects of El Niño, highlights the urgency of adopting comprehensive and preemptive measures to address this escalating threat.

As researchers and government officials advocate for strategies to mitigate wildfire risks, the challenge lies in balancing ecological preservation with urban expansion and climate adaptation.

The journey towards resilience against wildfires is indeed daunting, requiring concerted efforts across multiple fronts, from legal reforms to community engagement and environmental management.

The discussions around these fires not only shed light on the immediate dangers but also on the broader implications for global climate resilience and the need for integrated approaches to disaster preparedness and environmental stewardship.

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