Major fires: can we reduce the risk?

The fire that recently hit Viña del Mar, in addition to deep sadness and regret, made us wonder if it is possible to predict and prevent an event of this magnitude. Predicting where and when a disaster will occur is not entirely possible, but we can estimate the levels of risk (the likelihood of possible damage occurring) in the territory, both because there is a high threat (weather conditions favorable for the generation of fires) , exposure (communities, homes, infrastructures, ecosystems that may be affected) and socio-environmental vulnerability (how sensitive the territory and population is and how prepared we are).

Institutions such as the Center for Climate Science and Resilience (CR)2 and other research centers have developed risk maps for multiple high-impact events, including wildfires. The meteorological threat (high temperatures, low humidity and intense winds) is widespread in the central-southern area of ​​Chile during the summer months, while the exposure is greatest in the urban-rural interface of many medium and large cities. The latter sectors tend to be highly vulnerable as they have a precarious housing and urban infrastructure. It is therefore not surprising that the upper part of the Valparaíso-Viña del Mar conurbation is among the places at the highest risk of large-scale fires in Chile, which materialized in dramatic and high-impact events such as that of January 2014. , February 2017, December 2019 and what happened last week.

In a broader perspective, forest fires in Chile are concentrated between the regions of Valparaíso and Los Lagos, a priority area for the conservation of global biodiversity, given its exceptional rate of endemic species of flora and fauna, which still they survive in fragments of forests and native species. vegetation that is distributed in the midst of extensive forest plantations, clandestine landfills and/or increasingly widespread irregular settlements.

In 2019, an ambitious plan to prevent and fight forest fires was announced, which included public-private investment that exceeded $180 million, mainly for the purchase of technology and equipment. Although firefighting is necessary, recent social and environmental catastrophes demonstrate that no investment is sufficient if it is not implemented in combination with organic planning that considers the multiple actors involved and that gives prevention at least as much importance as fire control.

Can our country therefore reduce the risk of major fires and avoid the loss of human lives, environmental damage and material impacts? Unfortunately, the weather threat will increase in the coming decades as a result of climate change. Reducing exposure is only possible through long-term land use policies that limit irregular settlements and landscape homogeneity, such as those dominated by forest plantations of exotic species. Acting on these matters is fundamental but complex in political, social and economic terms.

However, vulnerability mitigation is a task that can be implemented in the short term, starting this summer. The elimination of waste accumulated in waterways and uncultivated sites, the identification and maintenance of escape routes, the preparation of emergency teams and the construction of firebreaks are just some examples of urgent and feasible actions to be implemented immediately at the local, municipal and regional level. . Even if limited in scope, these measures require resources, coordination and availability to implement them, therefore local and regional authorities must address these issues as soon as possible. Liability associated with private property is also essential for reducing fire risk in these and other forest-urban interface zones in central Chile. The aforementioned risk maps, as well as the national scientific community, are available to prioritize, implement and monitor such efforts.

It is equally important to advance long-term measures that promote better planning and land use, or forms of early warning and response. Together with this, the recent tragedies should at least provide elements to educate and sensitize the population which, on the one hand, suffers the impacts of the fires and, on the other, can favor their occurrence. And, of course, there is a need for an institutional framework and regulations equal to the task that give powers, capabilities and guidelines for proactive, integrated and precautionary risk management, especially in the face of the growing threat posed by climate change.

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  • The content expressed in this opinion column is the sole responsibility of its author and does not necessarily reflect the editorial line or position of The meter.

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