‘We are in an era of megafires’: new tactics demanded as wildfires intensify across South America

As South America endures unprecedented high temperatures, after the hottest January on record globally, it is still coming to terms with the devastating wildfires that have torn across the continent.

Chile has been the most notably affected country, with at least 131 people dying in a fire that ripped through the coastal Valparaíso region in what has quickly become a national tragedy. Last year, at least 23 people died in summer wildfires in the country.

However, it is not the only country suffering from out-of-control blazes. In Argentinian Patagonia, a fire in the Los Alerces national park has scorched more than 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres) of land, while fires in Colombia ravaged more than 17,000 hectares (42,000 acres) in January.

According to the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, 2023 was a year of intense wildfire activity in South America. Wildfire carbon emissions in Chile and parts of Argentina in the first two months were the second highest in 20 years.

Human activity sparks the vast majority of wildfires in South America. Chile’s fire authority, Conaf, has attributed 99.7% of fires to “carelessness or negligence” by human actors. Meanwhile, local officials have blamed campers for the Los Alerces fires in Argentina.

More than 3,000 hectares of native forest in southern Argentina burned in an uncontrolled fire that started on 25 January. Photograph: Argentina’s National Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Fires have become an increasing problem in recent years. Scientists cite a combination of El Niño, a weather pattern that causes sea temperatures to rise in the Pacific, affecting weather worldwide, and the climate crisis for creating the conditions in which fires can spread uncontrolled.

Raúl Cordero, a climate scientist at the University of Santiago, Chile, and the University of Groningen, says both played a major role in recent blazes. “The concurrence of El Niño and climate-fuelled heatwaves boosted the local fire risk and decisively contributed to the intense fire activity.”

Francisco de la Barrera, an associate professor at the University of Concepción, says the climate crisis is a “big part of the equation”, causing a long-term drought across the region and increasing the risk of fast-spreading fires. “I think we are in a new era of megafires that we have not seen before,” he says.

The Chilean environment minister, Maisa Rojas, says the climate crisis contributes to these events becoming “more frequent and stronger”. “Climate change is not a problem of the future,” she says. “It is a concern of today. We are already experiencing the effects of this phenomenon.”

Other local conditions also play a role. The area devastated by fire in Chile this week has huge, densely populated forests made up of non-native trees grown for the timber trade. This allowed the fire to spread quickly, De la Barrera says.

Governments have increased funding for fire prevention and response – but some critics argue that more must be done to prevent fires starting.

South American countries have introduced new measures and passed environmental laws to prevent wildfires. However, critics argue that implementation has sometimes been patchy. Chile, for example, was already investing £80m a year in firefighting but extended this by a further £40m after last year’s deadly fires.

Despite this, the events of the past few weeks show that funding is not enough, according to some experts. “Resources alone do not determine outcomes,” Cordero says. Despite an early warning system, he says some residents ignored an evacuation order because of concerns for the security of their homes. “Some people feared the thieves more than the fires,” he says.

Estefanía González, the deputy director of Greenpeace Chile, says that a proposed law restricting land-use change in areas affected by fires has failed to advance. The most significant danger, she says, is in areas where humans coexist with combustible plant species, regions that are “not considered in Chile’s land-use planning policies”.

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Wildfires at the north slope of Cerro Capitan, near Bariloche in Río Negro, Argentina, on 5 February. Photograph: Argentina’s National Parks/AFP/Getty Images

“We still do not have regulations that include the risk of fire in the designs for construction or construction of buildings,” she says.

Rojas highlights some of the government’s work in protection against fires and points out that the number of fires has decreased compared with the previous year.

“However, it has affected urban areas, generating a very important impact on people and their homes,” she says. “The government is acting quickly and in a coordinated manner to continue fighting the fires and to deliver the necessary aid to the people.”

In Argentina, successive governments have passed environmental legislation – including a general environment law and laws to protect forests and glaciers – but regional authorities have not universally adopted them.

Ana Di Pangracio, the biodiversity director at the Environment and Natural Resources Foundation in Argentina, says that while recent funding increases have been welcome, some regions have not properly implemented fire-management protocols, meaning in some cases it is not clear to which authority central government is supposed to distribute funds.

“It’s not only about money,” she says. “We need a paradigm shift when it comes to fires. We must go from a warlike emergency approach to a more preventive management. If we don’t do that, we will always run behind the fires.”

The government needs to warn people to act more responsibly, such as not lighting fires during a drought, but also to support other preventive approaches, she says.

Argentina’s new president, Javier Milei, has also been trying to strip back some environmental protections.

Di Pangracio says: “In South America, fires have become really severe and problematic. Of course, climate change is not helping at all with that because we know it makes natural processes like flooding or droughts even more extreme.

“It is even more worrying when you have a president that claims not to believe in climate change.”

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