Chile — SANTIAGO — “It’s extremely serious, a full-blown environmental catastrophe,” environmentalist Sara Larrain told IPS, describing the impact of the fire that has been raging through the Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia since Dec. 27.
The flames, fanned by high winds, took hold in a remote, hard-to- reach area and ravaged 16,000 hectares of natural vegetation, which park authorities told IPS will take eight decades to grow back to its former state.
The zone is now on amber alert, following the forest fire red alert declared in late December by the interior ministry’s National Emergency Office (ONEMI) at the request of the state National Forestry Corporation (CONAF).
At least 200 workers are fighting the blaze in the affected area, including CONAF brigades, the armed forces and police. Volunteer “brigadistas” from Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay have also joined the cooperative effort.
The Torres del Paine National Park, one of Chile’s major natural resources and a spectacular tourist attraction, is located over 3,000 km south of the capital city in the province of Última Esperanza in Magallanes region, between the massif of the Andes mountain range and the semi-arid Patagonian steppe.
Its total area is almost 200,000 hectares. It was declared a World Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1978.
The latest official report indicates that the fire has damaged native lenga or lenga beech (Nothofagus pumilio) and ñirre or Antarctic beech (Nothofagus antarctica) forests, matorral (shrubland) and steppe ecosystems. CONAF and tourist concession buildings have also suffered fire damage.
The blaze is thought to have been caused by the careless action of tourists; it started in the inaccessible Olguín mountains, close to the Grey glacier. From there the conflagration spread south along the banks of Lake Grey, to the Paine massif, where it split into two forks moving independently and erratically.
In some sectors the flames have been reactivated by winds, which can reach over 100 km per hour in that area, causing concerns about possible new wildfire outbreaks, and fears that the fire will not be completely extinguished until the southern hemisphere summer is over in late March.
In an interview with IPS, CONAF protected areas manager Eduardo Katz said that within the damaged area of over 16,000 hectares, there are zones of “total forest loss”.
“But there are considerable areas with partial forest loss, and we will have to see how the plant cover revives after the fire,” which will depend on the amount of available water, rainfall and temperatures, said Katz.
The first piece of good news was that it rained at least once a week in the second and third weeks of January.
“A lot of grass has sprouted up again with these latest rains, and this has helped to prevent erosion. It has also provided grazing for herbivores,” said Katz.
The Torres del Paine National Park contains close to 300 plant species, 126 bird species and more than 30 species of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fish, living in land habitats or in lakes, glaciers, the Pacific Ocean and rocks formed 150 million years ago.
“Fortunately, the two populations of large mammals in the park – guanacos (Lama guanicoe), a kind of camelid, and huemules (Hippocamelus bisulcus) or South Andean deer – do not live in the fire-ravaged zones but in adjacent areas,” and they were seen fleeing the holocaust and reaching safety, Katz said.
“We have found no evidence of any animals being killed in the fire,” he said.
A major concern is how long it will take for the damaged ecosystem to recover.
“Recovery in Patagonia, in Torres del Paine, is relatively slow,” the CONAF manager acknowledged.
After the last fire in the park, in 2005, recovery of grasslands took place quite quickly, so it is hoped on this occasion it may take less than a year.
But the outlook for the native forest destroyed in the present fire is much gloomier. For the lenga and ñirre trees “complete recovery could take at least 80 years,” Katz predicted.
He said natural recovery will be supported with an ecological replacement programme, planting seedlings and protecting them from herbivores and winds.
CONAF has some tools and strategies for forest fire prevention, action in emergencies and recovery, Katz said. But in his view, the best defence against such disasters is a strong commitment by visitors to care for and protect the park environment.
Katz emphasised that both park fires were started by human beings. “They were caused by careless behaviour, by people who failed to camp in the proper places or did not take precautions when making campfires. If they did things the right way, there should not have been any risks,” he said.
But Sara Larraín, a former presidential candidate and the head of Sustainable Chile Programme, an environmental NGO, criticised what she described as feeble state action to protect an area that is so important for the nation and for humankind.
“The state spends less than 1,000 pesos (two dollars) per hectare of protected reserve, for year-round protection and maintenance,” said Larraín. “The truth is there is neither the communicational capability nor the human resources to protect these areas.”
In Larraín’s view, “the forest fire in Torres del Paine shows we have learned nothing from the last fire,” which was also started by a tourist who broke fire regulations.
There have been no changes to the law or public policies since 2005 to prevent this kind of situation from recurring. According to Larraín, “this shows a total lack of political will by Chilean governments, of whatever political stripe, to protect our environmental heritage.”
“At present, we have no draft law and no progress… We have no legal framework to safeguard the protected areas,” Larraín complained. “The penalties under the native forest law date back to the 1930s, and they bear no correlation with the harm done.”
After the fire, rightwing President Sebastián Piñera announced the drafting of a new forest law to create new institutions and increase penalties for those responsible for starting fires, who under current legislation, passed in 1931, face no more than 61 days in prison.
A national fire protection plan may also be proposed, as well as a new institution to run it, and a special fund for action in emergencies.
But several environmental organisations are sceptical of Piñera’s announcements, especially while they remain mere words, without details of what the budget assignments will be.
So far the only suspect in the latest environmental disaster is an Israeli backpacker, Rotem Singer. He cannot leave the country for 90 days while legal proceedings last, and must report regularly to the public prosecutors’ office.