The Chilean Forest Service and its Fire Management Program
(IFFN No. 20 – March 1999,p. 46-49)
Chile covers 756,262 km2 on the South American Continent and Oceanic Island (Easter Island and Archipelago of Juan Fernandez) territories, bordering Bolivia and Argentina in the East, Perú in the North, and the Pacific Ocean in the West. The maximum width of the country is 445 km and the minimum width is 90 km. Two mountain ranges characterize the topography of Chile, the Cordillera de Los Andes (Andes Range) on the East, separating Chile from Argentina, and the Cordillera de la Costa (Coastal Range) to the West which is lower than the Andes Range. Both ranges decrease in altitudes as they run southward. Only ca. 20% of the territory is flat terrain.
The temperature is homogeneous from the extreme north to the extreme south, with a difference of 12.8° C in average temperatures, which is modest for a 37° C difference in latitude. The annual rainfall varies greatly, from <1 mm in the North to 4,500 mm in the extreme South.
There are four well-defined seasons in most of the country, although there are a variety of the local climates, from hot arid in the North to subarctic in the South. Maximum temperatures in summer in the central area reach 33° C with 30% relative humidity and seldom fall lower than 0° C in winter. From the North to the South, snow is confined to the Andes Range. Only in the extreme South snow is normally present.
Close to 45% of the continental area of Chile is suitable for forestry. This area is already covered by forest or by other vegetation. Of these 39 million ha, 15.6 million ha are native forest, 20.5 million ha are brush and grassland and 2.1 million ha are plantation forests, predominantly Monterrey pine (Pinus radiata D. Don.) (90%), the remaining plantations are eucalypts and poplars.
Almost all productive forest land belongs to private owners. Only National Parks (14 million ha) and other protected and public land (2 million ha) are under governmental adminstration.
The National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), the Chilean forest service, depends on the Ministry of Agriculture and is the organization in charge of forestry development, national parks, protected areas and wildlife administration, conservation and protection of forest resources, law enforcement and, mainly, in charge of Government relations with the private forestry sector, in order to apply the current general and economic policy of the Government.
There is a long history of human-caused fires in Chile, primarily caused by settlers or farmers which used fire for land clearing. This kind of land-use fires continued until the first decades of the 20th century.
No records of the fire occurrence and damages were kept until 1963, when a Forest Police Force was created as a branch of the National Police Force. The Forest Police Force formed crews with its own personnel and volunteers that lived near the police stations in the country. The action was aimed solely at fire suppression, without the support of planning, detection systems, operational centers, records, etc.
CONAF has developed forest fire protection activities since 1972 with a constant increase in technology and equipment. At present the role of the Forest Police Force has changed, discontinuing the suppression action and focusing on the enforcement of law and investigation of the fire causes.
The private forestry companies have developed forest fire protection activities since 1978 with a constant increase in technology and equipment aimed to protect their own lands.
Table 1 shows the national forest fire control resources used in 1997/98 season in Chile.
Tab.1. Forest Fire Control Resources
Other suppression forces are the City Fire Departments. Firemen of certain cities work quite efficiently and they are a useful support force in urban-wildland interface areas.
Special emphasis is given to fire suppression personnel safety through a Safety Program in each crew. Prior to the fire season this personnel is formally trained or receives refresher courses. However, special training is given to crew bosses. Accidents are an important problem: Since 1974 26 firefighters, 6 pilots and 1 air observers died in fire accidents.
Fire occurrence normally begins in November, reaches a peak in January and February and decreases in April. But in the last year El Niño had anticipating and active fire season in some regions.
Nearly all the fires are caused by humans. Lightning or other natural causes are insignificant or not present. Average data of the last 10 fire season reveal that 10.9% of the wildfires are caused by the use of fire in forestry and agricultural activities, 31.2% by carelessness. Children playing with matches cause 9.9% of the total fire starts, reaching significant importance near some cities. Intentionally set fires (arson) represent 34.9% of fire causes while unknown causes account for 13.1%.
The problem of forest fires has been increasingly worsened by the economic and social transformation faced by our country in the last decades. Industrialization, increase of tourism and the mobility of citizens have excessively increased the risk of fire. Fire statistics for the period 1965-1998 are given in Table 2.
Tab.2. Wildfire occurrence and are burned in Chile 1964-1998
The following graphic (Fig.1) shows an increase in the number of forest fires in the mid 1980s and a stabilizing trend in the mid 1990s. This development may reflect the impacts of a national fire prevention program of CONAF using TV, newspapers, posters, and road signs, especially in rural areas. For the use of fire in forest and agricultural work, CONAF has established by law a special regulation for using fire under a controlled burning method (burning permit system), with heavy fines for violators.
Fig.1. Development of the number of wildfires in Chile during the last 34 years (1965-1998)
The curve of burned area (Fig.2) is very irregular. Is to be attributed primarily to the unfavourable weather conditions, prolonged absence of rain, that prevailed especially in the south of the country.
Fig.2. Development of the area burned by wildfires in Chile during the last 34 years (1965-1998)
The 1997/98 Forest Fire Season in Chile
The 1997/98 (November to April) fire season in Chile will reflect a 88.4% increase in burned areas over 10 average, but the fire will be in the top worst 10 years. This large consumption of forest land in part reflects the intensity of the fire activity and evidence of an abnormally weather pattern developing. Chile is currently suffering the worst dry seasons in the last 60 years.
Table 3 shows the 1997/98 data in comparison with the 10 years average.
Tab.3. Wildfire statistics of Chile 1987-98 in comparison with the decade 1988-98
Note: Season November to April
In the south of the country, in X Region (Lake Region) and XI Región (Patagonian Region), over 35 forest fires were reported during the second week of February 1998. The hot weather pattern, the prolonged absence of rain, the influence of the local ‘Puelche’ type winds, and the remote and wildland area escalated the severity of the situation. A state of emergency was declared in this region, called military personal to help and firefighters of CONAF and fireline equipment had been mobilized from across the country. The situation across this region was critical.
The control this forest fire during in average 20 days and 65,787 ha of native forest and brushland was consumed. This area represented 72.4% of the national damage in this season.
In this season one fatality was reported: A PZL-18 Dromader air tanker crashed during fire operations in the V Region, the pilot died. Hot and windy often adversely flight performance.
Fig.3. & 4. GOES and NOAA/AVHRR images of the fires in Chile near Concepción, 9 & 10 February 1999, as processed by OSEI and displayed and interpreted by the Global Fire Monitoring Center during the February 1999 fire event.
(Source: NOAA http://www.osei.noaa.gov/ )
Chief, National Fire Prevention Program Fire Management Department
National Forestry Corporation
Av. Bulnes 285 of. 201
Santiago, Chile Fax: ++56-2-6994605