Three uncomfortable truths about Chilean forest fires

Three uncomfortable truths about Chilean forest fires

20 February 2018

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English version of the news. Note: the news has been translated by Google translator. Original version in the link provided.

CHILE – At the time of writing this note, it is already clear that in this summer period the voracity of forest fires is not even remotely similar to the previous year. The latter is good news. But, not everything is rosy: let’s see. For a couple of decades in Chile there are between 5 and 6 thousand forest fires every year. This year the projection shows that the number of fires is practically the same as the previous year, and that the previous one. 99% are caused by human action, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Consequently, as long as we are not able to lower the number of fires, our fire prevention campaigns will continue to be a failure!

As you may have noticed up to this minute, it is one thing to work in the prevention of fires, that is to say that there simply are no fires and another thing is to work to extinguish them when they are already declared. The first activity is not glamorous, it is very complicated since it must be done in winter, with the organized urban-rural community, with local municipal agents, with brigades of social workers, in short, getting their feet dirty with mud. The second, on the contrary, is glamorous, since the self-styled knights of the fire fight against it and, very media are employed like helicopters of high hour cost; brigades with very colorful uniforms; there may even be passenger planes that throw a useless rain for television. In addition, the directors of the emergency agencies appear in front of the cameras and explain that the fires are unleashed and there is no way to turn them off, although they never say these words.

However, if our forest fire prevention campaigns were to do something, that is, if there were fewer fires because we would really prevent them, all the media paraphernalia that comes with the firefighting function would be diminished. This is because the serious literature on forest fires teaches us that, for each peso well invested in prevention, you save up to 99 pesos in combat. The acute-minded reader will agree that prevention campaigns will be very difficult because the business involved in forest fires will be reduced. I refer directly to the leasing of aircraft to Spanish companies, the leasing of helicopters to local entrepreneurs, the purchase of supplies and materials to equip the brigades, in short, the contingent of brigadistas who are used annually for combat, among others. .

Let’s make a parenthesis in this communication to try to explain a technical variable of forest fires. First, about 60% of them originate in areas called interface, ie between the city and forest ecosystems, whether natural (native forests) or artificial (pine plantations or Eucalyptus). Therefore, these fires are possible to prevent since it is known where they originate and why they are triggered. Incidentally, contrary to what one might think, the forests do not move or threaten the cities, since the opposite happens: it is the cities that grow, those that are colonizing peripheral land with young families with low incomes that they need to live in them, those that are dangerously close to forest ecosystems.

Secondly, why is it that 40% of the total number of forest fires does not decrease year after year? Well, it is a delayed or simply non-existent reaction on the part of the State of Chile. Thus, for example, in the central zone if a land possesses native sclerophyllous vegetation and its owner wants to carry out an agricultural, urban, industrial or other undertaking, in many cases it is not granted the authorization of land use change by the SEREMI of corresponding Agriculture. After the “casual” fire, since there is no forest because it burned, the permit is granted. A little further south, if a land has an Eucalyptus plantation that is affected by the plague of the Gonipterus that prevents it from growing and turns it into an absurd crop because it does not generate income, CONAF, applying Chilean forestry legislation, prevents it and tie the soil to a forest crop forever. After the burning of the Eucalyptus plantation, the use of the land can be changed. This is repeated if the plantation is of Radiata Pine and the change of use is sought for any other agricultural option, neither can it be done because of impediment of DL 701. Likewise, this legal absurdity is repeated for the native forests, which are profusely burned to change use since the State does not have the necessary flexibility to limit the damage and is subjected to extensive areas of arson, lacking administrative responses to the needs of rural inhabitants.


The acute-minded reader will agree that prevention campaigns will be very difficult because the business involved in forest fires will be reduced. I refer directly to the leasing of aircraft to Spanish companies, the leasing of helicopters to local entrepreneurs, the purchase of supplies and materials to equip the brigades, in short, the contingent of brigadistas who are used annually for combat, among others.

In summary, it is important to understand that the forest fire caused is a response of desperate landowners looking for profitability of their land, to the inflexibility of the State that applies backward legislation, derived from an ideology that ties the forest to the site eternally. Substantially lowering the number of truly forest fires is a must of the State since they are massively the answer to their own inflexibility and obtuse application of backward and unnecessary legislation. Forests are conserved with other practices, not with restrictions on economic initiatives.

Of course, there are also fires due to negligence, such as those that originate from the production of electric arcs in high voltage cables and ignite the vegetation that was not conveniently cut as was the case in the O’Higgins region in 2017; or those that originate inadvertently on the side of the roads that do not have firebreaks on the part of the concessionaires or the Roads Department. There are also mountain fires resulting from dry summer storms, where rays affect native forests that are very difficult to access (over 50 the summer of 2015 in the Cordillera de Ñuble, Biobío and Malleco). However, unacceptable fires are those caused by people who see no other option than setting fire to cause a change in attitude of the State.

At the beginning of this communication we assure that everything is not rosy. This is because if, objectively, the same number of forest fires or interface fires have affected an area 20 times smaller than the previous year, this has nothing to do with the preparations of the fire protection system of forestry companies or the State of Chile nor with the speed with which they are reacting to the fires present. No, this is due neither more nor less, because the vegetation, fruit of a normal year, that is to say, it rained as when we were children, it still has today, despite the fact that 2 months ago it does not rain in the central zone of Chile, in its tissues, a quantity of water that makes it very difficult, or makes its combustion difficult. This is measured by the Vegetation Moisture Index (IHV). The summer of 2017 the IHV was very low so the same number of fires that the previous year and that this year, meant a huge voracity, burning ½ million hectares of native vegetation and planted.

There are estimations that account that in the matter of forest plantations the fire of 200 thousand ha of the previous year corresponds to the net effort of new plantations of 40 years. Today the owners of burned forested lands in the O’Higgins, Maule and Biobío regions are 40 years poorer. And, as is evident, if we are presented with a series of dry years like the ones we had from 2010 onwards, the possibilities of new mega fires are very high.

For all of the above, we need to prevent forest fires, land use change and forest fires, which are now all mixed and handled by the same organization, with logical, institutional and administrative measures that are intelligent and audacious. For this we must recognize certain uncomfortable truths.

The first uncomfortable truth is that it can not be the same people who prevent fires as those who put out fires. It is logical, if they are prevented very well, then there will be no fires and that is a bad business for those who are dedicated to turn them off! Who works and plays institutionally for the prevention of fires is an enemy, institutionally speaking, of who turns them off. There must be healthy competition there. Prevention must be carried out in the interface areas, where the fire is triggered as an urban fire and then affects forest ecosystems. The concern and action here is developed on clandestine garbage dumps, on impenetrable bushes, on bored children in the marginal summer, on rodent plagues that invade the houses, in short, on urban poverty in the forest periphery. In short, prevention begins in winter and continues in summer and spring, that is, it is a permanent activity of intervention on society. Prevention must be developed by forestry agencies of the State of Chile.

The second uncomfortable truth is that the forest fire fight must be of maximum professionalism and it is not possible that year after year the brigadistas are dispatched to their homes and their experience is lost. It is necessary for the brigadistas to be full-time professionals, forming highly specialized units in charge of highly specialized organizations. Fire fighting must be developed by those who deal with emergencies of all kinds.

The third uncomfortable truth is that the State must flexibly apply forest legislation, preventing owners from facing dead ends. It is necessary to be flexible and imaginative so that the forest and planted resources are compensated if it is required to change the use of the land. Forest agencies must understand that soils can and should be used to improve the quality of life of their owners and that there is no eternal crop and a soil can not be tied eternally to forestry.

As is evident, these three organizational modifications can not be applied one by one. They must be done in unison to, first, reduce interface fires, then be very efficient in the attack and combat of forest fires that are triggered and, finally, prevent intentional fire as a strategy for changing land use.


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