TEPIC, Mexico, Feb 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A mix
of high-tech satellite data and brightly coloured cartoons is
helping subsistence farmers around Riberalta in Bolivia’s
northern Amazon pick the best time to burn off their land and
reduce the risk of uncontrolled blazes, as persistent drought
makes wildfires a hot issue in Latin America.
“Fire is a real problem with these communities - it’s
something they’re very concerned about,” said Veronica
Ibarnegaray, programme director at Bolivia’s Fundacion Amigos de
la Naturaleza (FAN - Friends of Nature Foundation), explaining
that slash-and-burn farming for crops and cattle is largely to
To let indigenous farmers know whether hot, dry or windy
conditions could fan their fires out of control, threatening
livelihoods and ecologically sensitive areas, fire monitors
check local conditions with hand-held weather meters before
adjusting colour-coded signs showing the risk level, she said.
The foundation, which has developed its own early warning
system combining NASA satellite and weather data, distributes
burning calendars and pamphlets illustrated with cartoons
showing farmers what precautions they should take to keep fires
It is also training local communities to become
first-response fire fighters after running a similar project in
Bolivia’s eastern Chiquitania region.
Following a spate of recent fires in Bolivia, Peru and
Argentina, alongside deadly blazes in Chile, experts are calling
for a greater focus on fire education and alerting systems to
limit wildfires, which are widely expected to increase as
pressure grows on land and climate change brings warmer
“When the fire weather is so bad and the fuels are so dry,
nobody can put them out,” said Amber Soja, a NASA scientist who
works with Conservation International on fire detection and risk
forecasting. “No matter how technical and advanced you are, you
can’t throw enough money at them to extinguish them.”
In drought-hit Peru, thousands of hectares of land were
scorched in fires late last year, including forests, farmland
and protected areas known for their biodiversity and rare
animals, while fires have also flared in Bolivia which has
suffered its worst drought in 25 years.
Tinderbox conditions caused by a near-decade long drought,
high temperatures and strong winds led to the fires that
recently ripped through Chile, killing 11 people, destroying
1,500 homes and costing the government $333 million in damages
and the forestry industry around $350 million.
“The fires here are all caused directly or indirectly by
man, so the first job we need to do is environmental education,”
said Roberto Garfias Salinas, forestry engineer at the
University of Chile.
Experts say Chile requires increased resources to tackle
blazes, combined with comprehensive fire education and tighter
measures to control arson, blamed for starting some blazes.
Garfias said more firebreaks were needed to stop fires
running out of control, while Chile’s Green Ecologist Party has
called for a kilometre-wide boundary between populated areas and
the vast industrial plantations that have replaced native
forests, to try and limit damage.
In Peru and Bolivia, where farmers use fire as a cheap way
to clear land and remove plagues of insects and snakes, experts
say better coordination, faster reaction times and wider use of
early warning systems could help prevent blazes spiralling out
Some argue that simply suppressing fires now will lead to
bigger blazes in years to come, arguing that more emphasis
should be placed on using controlled burning to remove debris
that could fuel future fires.
Low-intensity fires can help regenerate soil, but bigger
blazes can cause serious soil damage and erosion, which in turn
may lead to flash floods and impact water supplies. Choking air
pollution from clouds of smoke can also cause serious health
“A lot of the time, fire is used for agricultural management
- burning resets everything and can enrich the soil too,” said
Karyn Tabor, early warning systems director at Conservation
International which provided fire risk data to Bolivia's FAN
before it developed its own model.
But those using the method need to be knowledgeable about
how to do so, “and that’s a huge issue”, she said.
Although forests in some regions have adapted to fire and
sometimes even need it to renew themselves, many parts of Latin
America do not have this natural resistance, so damage can be
devastating and permanently change the landscape, experts say.
Ernesto Ráez-Luna, one of a team of scientists who last year
warned governments in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia of the fire risk
in drought-hit regions, said no forest eco-system in the
tropical Andes was adapted to fire.
“If you burn a forest in Latin America... all you’ll end up
is with a savannah or grassland,” said Ráez-Luna, a professor at
Peru’s Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University.
There is little comprehensive data on the number of
wildfires around the world each year, but experts predict
longer, more intense fire seasons as climate change exacerbates
Several years of wet weather that allows vegetation to
flourish, followed by periods of drought and high temperatures
create the perfect “boom-bust” conditions as plants dry out
leaving plenty of fuel for fires to consume, said Timothy
Ingalsbee, co-director of the Association for Fire Ecology.
“It’s these changes in fires that are really going to hit
home to people that climate change is real and it’s happening,”
(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please
credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of
Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change,
resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights.