Multiple factors contribute to the severity of wildfires in Chile. In the midst of a years-long drought coupled with high temperatures in recent weeks, questions arise about what could have been done differently to avoid or at least limit February’s wildfires. Drought management falls under the president’s reconstruction plan as one of its major goals.
February 2023 proved to be a tough month for Chile. Wildfires in the south-central part of the country have burned more than 330,000 hectares and 1,000 homes and are linked to 24 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries.
Chile’s climate risk profile is considered “vulnerable,” according to an analysis by the World Bank, due to a combination of political, geographic, and social factors. Overall, Chile is ranked 30th out of 181 countries in the 2022 ND-GAIN Index.
One of the major factors responsible for wildfires is drought. Chile has suffered many instances of drought, including a drought between 2008-2015 that affected much of the southern and central areas. Climate change is expected to alter the frequency, intensity, exposure, and magnitude of multiple hazards that have historically affected Chile, including wildfires, floods, landslides, droughts, and the impacts of sea level rise. The accumulation of these can have important implications for economic growth and development in regions, particularly for electricity generation, agriculture, and public health.
Drought and wildfires
Extreme temperatures and years of drought have contributed to the scale and intensity of the wildfires in 2023.
Maximum temperatures in the southern zone, where forests and forest plantations are concentrated, have increased on average 0.5 degrees per decade, above the average global increase, says Roberto Rondanelli, professor of the Department of Geophysics of the University of Chile.
Drought contributed to increasing Chile’s exposure to wildfires. “In the area where there have been more fires we have a Mediterranean climate, with dry springs and summers. High temperatures were added to the dry soil this year, associated with stronger winds that helped spread the fire,” Rondanelli explained.
Droughts are becoming a severe problem in Chile’s remote south, the country’s gateway to the Antarctic. The current one is the worst in half a century. Cattle ranchers and vegetable farmers have been its principal victims. The drought has left the earth so dry in some areas that grass cannot grow for grazing.
“In 2022 Punta Arenas had its driest year in 52 years,” said Nicolas Butorovic, a climatologist from the Regional University of Magallanes.
As authorities are starting to get February’s wildfires under control, the Boric administration is planning recovery measures as well as preventive measures, including drought management as a central goal.
Gerardo Otzen, leader of the farmers in Magallanes, however, was disappointed after attending a meeting with local and national officials.
“We are not sitting idly by waiting for all the help to come from the State, it is a shared thing, we continue working and doing what we have to do, but this is a problem that of course surpasses us. It is a matter of seeing how livestock numbers have decreased in the last ten years,” he emphasized.
Livestock farming along with agriculture are the main economic drivers of the southern area of the nation. In both cases, water is key to the development of production.
Carmen Critelli is an intern at Chile Today. She has recently completed her bachelor’s degree in European Studies from Maastricht University in the Netherlands. During her studies and journalistic experience, she specialised in migration/immigration issues, poverty and sustainability.