Wildfire risks in central Chile escalate despite coastal cooling

February 22, 2024

The growing threat of wildfires in central Chile

Despite a known trend of coastal cooling, central Chile faces an escalating threat of deadly wildfires, exacerbated by changing land management practices in a warming climate.

In early February 2024, the region experienced intense fire-conducive weather conditions, including a low-pressure system known as the coastal low, which led to clear skies, high temperatures, and strong winds.

These conditions favored the spread of severe fires in and around Viña del Mar, resulting in significant humanitarian impact: over 29,000 hectares burned, 132 deaths, 300 missing, 7,200 houses destroyed, and 40,000 people affected.

The role of climate and land management

A collaborative effort by researchers from several countries assessed how human-induced climate change might be altering the likelihood and intensity of such weather conditions.

They focused on a fire weather index (HDWI) that captures the essence of fire conducive conditions: high wind speeds, temperatures, and low humidity.

Their findings highlighted an interaction between extreme climate conditions and land management policies, particularly affecting informal settlements.

The hot, dry, and windy conditions characteristic of the February 2024 wildfires were identified as a 1 in 30-year event in today’s climate, suggesting a notable increase in fire risk due to current land management practices, including the expansion of wildland-urban interface areas and the conversion of native to foreign and monoculture plantations.

Climate change and future fire danger

The study also explored the influence of climate change on fire danger, finding a small increase in the HDWI in some models, although not significant.

This reflects the complex interaction between coastal cooling and inland warming in the region, with only a few models accurately simulating the event.

Despite this, the researchers emphasized the serious risk posed by human-induced climate change to increasing dangerous fire weather conditions, especially if the global community fails to rapidly reduce fossil fuel consumption.

Additionally, the study assessed the impact of El Niño on fire weather conditions, finding no significant influence.

FSJA Comment

The increasing wildfire risks in central Chile underscore the urgent need for comprehensive strategies to mitigate these dangers.

The research highlights the complex interplay between climate change, land management practices, and fire weather conditions, pointing to the importance of adopting multi-faceted approaches in addressing this challenge.

Improved spatial planning, enhanced coordination and resource allocation for fire prevention, community engagement, and awareness campaigns are critical steps toward safeguarding communities from the devastating impacts of wildfires.

Moreover, the success of pilot programs like Villa Botania’s fireproofing efforts provides valuable lessons in preparedness and resilience, demonstrating the life-saving potential of proactive measures.

As wildfires continue to pose a serious threat to lives and livelihoods, the findings of this study serve as a crucial call to action for policymakers, communities, and individuals alike to prioritize fire risk reduction and climate adaptation efforts.

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