Wildfires in the Andean Patagonia Region of Argentina
(IFFN No. 23 – December 2000,p. 54-57)
The Republic of Argentina has a wide range of climates, from sub-tropical to sub-antarctic, providing for an enormous diversity of flora and fauna. Depending on the time of the year wildfires are common in different regions of the country.
As we start an imaginary journey heading south from the far north, we encounter sub-tropical forests, jagged mountain ranges, immense grassy wetlands, river deltas, vast deserts, and exotic species, until we reach Patagonia. The Patagonian Andean Region extends from 35º30’S to 55ºS. In the West we find the sub-Antarctic forest with its thousand-year-old trees and beautiful cold forests covering 75 km wide strip that extends for more than 2,000 km to Tierra del Fuego. In this region, fires are common from October to April.
Argentina is divided into federal provinces, and each province has a legal obligation to ensure the preservation and proper use of its natural resources The provinces are directly responsible for preventing and fighting wildfires. However, when complex fires threaten to overrun the provinces firefighting systems, the law stipulates that assistance can be requested from federal government organizations.
Fires near residential areas or those that threaten valuable economic, ecological or tourist areas, often cause public panic. Panic arises because these fires have been allowed to grow to disastrous proportion in recent years, far beyond the capacities of the firefighting teams.
Due to political and social pressures, firefighting missions have included inappropriate personnel and material resources, compounded by disorganization and a lack of operational plans. Contradictory orders and frequent public controversies among the senior staff have also contributed to the failure such operations. Because of this inefficiency, the public debate focused on the responsibility of politicians an civil servants. The solution was to confront the problem and, finally, to establish a framework for planning and distributing the resources to combat future fires more efficiently and more successfully.
Wildfires and their causes in the Andean Patagonia region
In central and southern Patagonia natural phenomena account for very few fires, since lighting storms are limited almost exclusively to northern regions. Here, as in many other parts of the world, man causes most fires. Andean Patagonian region statistics show 7% natural causes and 93% human causes.
Recent research shows that in prehistoric times, fires in this part of the continent were commonly caused by volcanoes and lighting. Fires increased later, when the first human inhabitants appeared on the scene. Around the end of last century, European settlers used it as the main tool to clear for agriculture uses and livestock and burned away a great expanse of the mountain range forest.
Fortunately, burning to clear land was gradually abandoned after the middle of the present century. In the 1970s, a strong internal migratory current gave way to the almost explosive development of the new residential buildings on natural lands covered with highly combustible grass, bushes and trees.
Since that time, the number of fires has increased steadily, and the presence of a large population in those interface areas undoubtedly influences fires.
Fig. 1. Wildfires in the Andean Region of Neuquén, Rio Negro and Chubut Provinces
Wildfire protection organizations
Unlike other zones in Argentina, each of the provinces in Patagonia, has been able to enact its own laws to create a forest and wildfire protection system. These prevention and fighting units have traditionally been the best structured in the country, and have achieved important organizational and functional results. This protection provincials systems train and move annually 400 firefighters.
Terrestrial firefighting resources
In Andino-Patagónica attempt to solve the organization problems, an initial evaluation revealed the need to improve and consolidate the detection and communication systems, to update firefighting equipment, and to improve the initial attack component and the extended attack organizations.
The National Fire Management Program (Plan Nacional del Manejo del Fuego – PNMF), responsible for federal assistance, purchased materials, transport vehicles, communication equipment, as well as combat elements and delivered them to the provinces. Some provinces and the National Park Management, have allocated increased budgets to infrastructure and improved their facilities and equipment.
The PNMF has also allocated funds to hire, train and equip more than 950 temporary firefighters in new brigades, while the number of personnel in charge of operational and support tasks has also been substantially increased. In fact, for the first time, essential logistical planning functions, as well as land and air operations were finally addressed in some regions.
Under an agreement with the Argentine Air Force, the PNMF deploys fixed-and rotary-wing air-craft during fire emergencies to complement and support ground-based reconnaissance, detection, transport and firefighting activities. Air equipment consists of Bell 205 and Hughes 500 helicopters equipped with 1,000-litre and 450-litre Bambi buckets, respectively. A Chinook CH-47 (with a 5,000-litre Bambi bucket) reinforces the operations of the smaller aircraft. These helicopters also transport fire brigades, enabling fast access to mountainous and isolated regions without access roads. To make the work of the initial attack land crews easier, the PNMF also operates agricultural aircraft, such as the tough and maneuverable Grumman AG450 and AG6OO, and the Air Tractor AT-602. Light aircraft from the region’s flying clubs perform reconnaissance and detection missions.
Air Resources Coordination responsible for all air resources works with the Regional operation Headquarters. This headquarters receives information on the characteristics and evolution of fires, then passes down operational orders to aircraft dispatchers at the different bases.
The Patagonian Andes Research and Extension Center (CIEFAP) is a research center created to make a contribution towards the conservation, expansion and sustainable use of Forest and Natural Resources, by carrying out applied research and technology transfer activities.
CIEFAP has as the main goals:
To contribute to the development of forestry in Patagonia, through applied research and technology transference activities.
To provide Andino-Patagónica adequate institutional policy for forestry sustainable development.
To create a “forestry conscience” not only in the inhabitants of this region, but also at governmental level as well.
To improve the skill of human resources at all levels: workers, technicians, professionals, managers and rulers.
To find solutions to the technicians and scientific problems of the forestry sector in Patagonia
A special area, Forest Protection, works in wildland fire problems with fire managers and other specialists integrated in a Fire Group Task.
Some of the themes addressed include:
Through experimental and control burning, feasibility of fire use in silvicultural activities, specially in Ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) plantations.
Basic studies are developed to adapt fuel models to the BEHAVE fuel model system, and other studies including inflammability, caloric power and heat transfer in natural species bark level.
Fuel management including fuel treatment in native and exotic forest are conducted.
Support to suppression activities
Meteorological information is provided for large fires; fire behavior observations, and scientific and technical assistance.
Remote Sensing and Geographic Laboratory
The Integrated Remote Sensing and Geographic Information System (GIS) Laboratory supports forest fire presupression activities, and conflagrations evaluation.
Focus on the native species Austrocedrus chilensis.
Land owner assistance
Landowner associations (consortia) in presupression activities are technically supported.
Fire danger rating systems
Different systems are being evaluated to decide for the implementation of a system for the Region.
Fire problems are increasing in Patagonia, thus are following the global tendency. Fortunately the public and authorities concern about fire problem is increasing too, and firefighting organizations are improving their efficiency.
Anuarios Estadísticos de la Secretaría de Agricultura, Ganadería, Pesca y Alimentación. SAGPyA 1993-1998 Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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Bunge Carlos A. Prevención y combate de incendios forestales. 1999. Revista Argentina Forestal Nº 3, pp 6-12. Cámara Argentina de Aserraderos de Maderas, Depósitos y Afines. Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Goldammer, J.G.; P. Cwielong; N. Rodríguez, and J. Goergen. 1996. One thousand years of fire history of Andino Patagonian forest recovered from sediments of the Río Epuyén, Chubut Province, Argentina. In: J.S. Levine (ed.), Biomass burning and global change. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. ISBN 0262122022
Ivandic, F. L. 1998. Forest fire fighting organization in the Republic of Argentina since 1996. Initial Attack. The Magazine for Wildfire Management. Spring 1999. Canada.Patagonian Andes Forest Research and Extension Center. 1995. Information Brochure Nº 8. CIEFAP Esquel, Chubut, Argentina.
Rodríguez, N. F. 1999. Several non-published technical papers. CIEFAP Esquel, Chubut, Argentina.
I wish to thank to Paul Cwielong, and María del Carmen Dentoni, for their support to write this paper.
Norberto F. Rodríguez, MSc.
Fire Managment Specialist
Forest Protection Area
CC14, (9200) Esquel, Chubut,