Forest fire expert, Miguel Castillo: “The amount has been maintained, but the severity has increased”


Wildfires consuming large areas of forests and cities have become increasingly common around the world. In Chile, the worst years were 2021 and 2017, when flames devoured thousands of hectares in the regions of Coquimbo, Valparaíso, O’Higgins, Maule, Biobío, La Araucanía, Los Ríos, Los Lagos, Magallanes and Metropolitan.

Over the weekend, forest fires in the Nueva Esperanza sector of Viña del Mar consumed 111 hectares and left at least two dead, 67 injured, 42 shelters and 270 homes damaged.

According to the NGO Global Forest Watch, Chile’s peak fire season generally begins in mid-December and lasts about 20 weeks. Currently, according to Conaf data – data updated daily – 2,251 forest fires were recorded in the period 2022-2023 and 30,967 hectares were affected.

Doctor of Natural Resources and Sustainability and researcher at the Forest Fire Laboratory of the University of Chile, Miguel Castillo Soto, explained to The meter that “there has been an evident effort in the endowment of economic resources to vigorously promote fire prevention programs, both in state and private agencies”.

“This has been quite positive, as it has also promoted better training of field personnel and an update of technological tools. We live in a very modern world, which was not seen 25 years ago. For example, in power plants It was unthinkable to have groups WhatsApp, drones or thermal imaging cameras, that is a reality and, in this sense, a part of public policies has taken charge of this need for updating”, he added.

However, the forest fire expert argued that there is a weakness in the legislation on strategies for preventing and fighting forest fires.

“There is a strong weakness in the legislative part, both at a transversal and national policy level, of the strategies for the prevention and fight against forest fires that exist. It usually presents regulatory shortcomings, especially in the sanctioning scheme and, also, in the collective measures working at the community level. There is still a lot to do, because there is a lot of ignorance about the use of fire in agricultural, forest and rural land,” she stressed.

Furthermore, he underlined the lack of vigilance, “especially in the Protected Areas sector, where the threat of forest fires will become more frequent”.

Modernization of Onemi

In relation to public policies, he indicated that progress has been made in collective protection and emergency management. As of January 1, 2023, the National Emergency Office of the Ministry of the Interior (Onemi) will be replaced by the National Disaster Prevention and Response Service (Sernapred), according to a law approved during the government of Sebastián Piñera.

“Today Onemi is in a process of change and this goes hand in hand with a new way of rethinking the first aid service. There is a modernization process, but there is still a long way to go. At the territorial level there are many weaknesses, somewhat hand in hand with the regulatory aspect, especially territorial, and the territorial issue of establishing housing in non-qualified sectors continues to be a problem, despite the ordinance not allowing it and this is due to a lack of control,” underlined Miguel Castillo.

In this regard, the University of Chile professor said that the paradigm is changing that “the money goes to the fight and very little to prevention, because that has been a classic discourse in the last 15 years.”

Climate change and forest fires

Images of forests and burnt houses similar to those in Chile have been seen abroad, such as in Argentina, the United States, Spain, Russia and Brazil, to name a few countries. The Forest Fire Laboratory researcher at the U. de Chile commented that the consequences of climate change in countries have set an important precedent when it comes to fighting fires.

“Forest fires have always existed, but in fact in the last 20 or 22 years the first effects of climate change have started to be seen very clearly. , her water needs have been relatively constant and that is more or less since the year 98,” she explained.

Castillo clarified that “it is not really the temperature itself the most relevant meteorological factor that can cause an increase in the intensity and severity of the fires, it is the humidity of the fuels, not the relative humidity of the air”.

There are two types of humidity, the environmental one and that of the plant tissues, «the latter is the very low one, because it turns out that we have had several periods of drought and the spring rains that occurred this year, even if it is true that they have somewhat relieved the water supply in the mountains, at least those which are the pre-cordillerian basins of the whole central region, in terms of forest it was not enough,” he said.

Castillo also pointed out that fires in forest ecosystems have always existed.

“Our human space-time scale is very small in relation to natural history, but in Chile all the processes of colonization and land use change have accelerated some patterns that nature had in its DNA, including the repetition of fires wooded”. he said.

Along the same lines, other issues related to land use and the increase in housing stock meant that “as the population level began to increase, populated land began to expand and the production of goods and services in agriculture and in other forest-type services, this has caused the soil to start to get saturated, and by that I mean human activity, and the increase in forest fires, the number of fires, even if it’s true, is remained constant in recent years, their severity has increased,” Castillo stressed.

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