This year, forest fires have burned twice as many hectares of land than in 2018 and the summer has only just begun. While not a big problem before, forest fires have become normal over the last three years. What is causing them and why are they increasing as the years go by?
Researchers found many factors that contribute to the problem but three stand out: climate change, imported plant species, and urbanization. The Bomberos, Chile’s volunteer fire-fighting service, is overstretched as they fight an average 10 fires a day, translating into a 75% increase over the last year. Although more watch towers are being built and firefighting planes bought, the fires keep spreading and growing. To get on top of the problem, it is essential to identify the most relevant factors that facilitate forest fires.
Key to the problem is, as so often, climate change. Chile is geographically vulnerable because of its low-lying coastal areas, among others. Low-lying coastal areas, for example, provide entrances to heavy winds that meet high temperatures generated by global warming and are maintained by pollution in big cities. Also, Chile is suffering a prolonged drought, which Greenpeace classifies as the worst in the country’s history.
Ripple effects of the drought lead to impossible choices. According to a World Resource Institute investigation, water shortages will worsen over the next 20 years, and in many cities across Chile water is already scarce. Lack of water prevents combating these fires and it could mean choosing between fires and the health of citizens.
Imported tree species such as pine and eucalyptus are more flammable and less adapted to the hot and dry environments than native trees. They also require more water and thus increasingly dry the soil for native trees, making reforestation yet more challenging.
To boost the economy, the Pinochet dictatorship created Decree 701, which formed part of an emerging corporate welfare state that subsidized the industries of Chile’s oligarchy. As a result, lumber and paper industries, led among others by the Matte family, have become important exporters.
Calls to curb the planting of pine and eucalyptus, especially in areas where forest fires devastated native species, are still not heeded. And lumber and paper producers have no incentive to halt production since the market is lucrative while politicians see no reason – or are afraid – to cut into an important export industry.
The Investigations Police (PDI) found that almost all fires involve some human factor. Especially urbanization is to blame as lack of regulation and weak enforcement leads to sprawling home-building in high-risk areas. Residents often light fires to burn garbage, start campfires, or do barbecues, which can easily trigger uncontrollable fires. Rafael Garcia, ecological and biodiversity investigator from Universidad de Concepción, told The Clinic publication that tight urbanization regulation and enforcement would lower the risk of fires significantly.
Although accidents start most fires, some are caused by arson. The reasons for this range from political motives to commercial ones. For example, the controversial figure of Facundo Francisco Jones Huala, one of the founders of Resistencia Ancestral Mapuche (RAM), was charged with setting several hectares aflame to protest companies such as Italian clothing brand Benetton, using the ancestral land for commercial reasons and to draw attention to the violence the Mapuche have endured. Because of such actions, the Mapuche community remains a scapegoat for many fires all over the country.
Many blame political inaction for the continued spread of fires, as does Rafael García who claims that although the fire brigades are highly effective at stopping fires, the emphasis should be on prevention, especially in the areas of “landscape management and education.” Education involving the demonstration of proper ways to put out campfires, the dangers of lighting fires even for a barbecue, and the risk factors of improper disposal of cigarettes would raise awareness among the future generations that will inherit a burnt country.
Bethany works as a professional English teacher from the United States. She obtained her Bachelors of Arts in English Education and Masters of Liberal Arts in English from Henderson State University. As well as a life-long Literature and Language lover, Bethany also dabbles in stand-up comedy on the weekends. She currently lives in Santiago, Chile where, in addition to teaching, she organizes bilingual events with The Chistolas, a comedy and event-management group.