Costa Rica — Earlier this month, more than 250 firefighters from five Latin American nations concluded a major training exercise in Ciudad de los Ninos (City of Children), province of Cartago. This exercise was very timely for Costa Rica, a country that is expecting a high risk of wildfires due to increased human activity in nature reserves and farmlands, climate change, and overall carelessness.
This multinational exercise was organized by the National Commission on Forest Fires (Spanish acronym: CONIFOR), an entity that is seeking legislation that will provide more funding and resources in forest fire prevention as well as imposing stronger penalties to those who are convicted of carelessly or deliberately setting off wildfires. Firefighters and specialists from El Salvador, Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras also participated in the event, which received support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).
Costa Rica has two major climate seasons. Invierno (winter) is the green or rainy season, which wrapped up its torrential rains weeks ago. Forest fires are unlikely during the green season, but the dry verano (summer) season has the opposite effect. The incidence of forest fires in Costa Rica happens to coincide with the holidays, school vacations and the high tourist season.
One of the most vulnerable provinces in terms of forest fires is Guanacaste, which also happens to be the most visited province during the dry season in Costa Rica. This region is home to vast dry tropical forests, which are very susceptible to wildfires. Adding fuel to the fire, so to speak, is the fact that water shortages in Guanacaste are notorious during the dry season as golf courses are irrigated and the increase in tourism demands greater usage.
In 2013, forest fire prevention in Costa Rica was declared a success after a fiery 2012 consumed more than 53,000 hectares. The 1980s and 1990s were a dark time in terms of wildfires as more than 100,000 hectares burned each year. The Ministry of the Environment has remarked that forest fires were largely ignored in the past because rural areas were sparsely populated, but the booms in tourism, urbanism and real estate development have prompted a different strategy.
Costa Rica has 75 forest fire brigades that are mostly manned by unpaid volunteers. According to the United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, Costa Rica is the most successful Latin American and Caribbean nation in terms of wildfire prevention.