Chilean mega-drought fuels devastating forest fires in the country

Chile forest fires
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Forest fires in Chile have razed some 667,000 acres of land – an area larger than Luxembourg. They had claimed 26 human lives by 6 February.

Fuelled by strong winds and temperatures exceeding 40C, hundreds of fires have blazed in south-central Chile. According to the National Forestry Corporation, 275 fires were active by early on 6 February.

As Al Jazeera reported, speaking at a press conference on 5 February, interior minister Carolina Toha said:

Weather conditions have made it very difficult to put out [the fires] that are spreading and the emergency is getting worse

Toha highlighted that:

We are becoming one of the [nations] most vulnerable to fires, fundamentally due to the evolution of climate change

The thermometer has reached points that we have never known until now

Read on...

Scenes of devastation

There were scenes of devastation on 5 February in areas surrounded by burning forests, with farming plots and houses lost. Maria Ines – a 55-year-old social worker in Santa Juana, in the hard-hit Biobio region – described the situation to Agence France-Presse (AFP) as “hell”. She said:

It is a miracle that some of the houses were spared… now we are afraid that the fire will return…. Where will we find refuge? Where? How?”

Miguel Angel Henriquez is a 58-year-old farmer from Santa Juana, in the same region. He told AFP that he saw a neighbour brave the flames to try and rescue some of his animals:

He did not come out. I yelled at him to come out of the fire, but he didn’t listen.

Dogs, cats, chickens, horses and cows have all suffered from the fires. Countless wild animals undoubtedly have too.

In Santa Juana, volunteers have erected a makeshift veterinary clinic in a school. It saw 70 patients on 5 February alone – and more than 150 in three days. Susan Angulo, a veterinarian in charge of the improvised clinic, told AFP:

We wanted to set up this center because we know… there are many animals that were affected

Angulo said volunteer teams are travelling to villages, fields and forests in search of animals that need help after the devastating blazes.

Chile mega-drought

In 2017, a rash of fires in the same region left 11 people dead, injured nearly 6,000, and destroyed 1,500 homes.

As the Guardian reported, with many fires still raging, the number of acres burned in 2023 already places it as the country’s second-worst year on record.

Authorities have arrested 11 people, according to deputy interior minister Manuel Monsalve, in relation to the fires.

In a 2022 state of the climate report for Latin America and the Caribbean, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) explained that Chile has seen “an unprecedented, uninterrupted sequence of drier-than-average years”. Describing the situation as a ‘mega-drought’ which has run for 13 years and counting, the WMO said it:

is the longest and most severe [drought] in 1000 years, putting Chile at the forefront of a regional water crisis

As Red Pepper reported, the crisis situation is exacerbated by the fact that Chile has a privatised water system. Moreover, the publication noted that:

much of the country’s water supplies are used in industrial extraction, forestry, and the production of agriculture for export in the global market.

Under President Gabriel Boric, a new groundbreaking constitution was put forward last year would have put water back into public ownership. But amid misinformation by the campaign to reject it, a majority of the public voted against adopting the constitution in September.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Featured image via DW News / YouTube

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