Chile once again faces a wave of devastating fires.
Every year, with the arrival of the southern summer, the country faces fire in different parts of its geography.
Look: Chile asks for international help against wave of fires
But this year is being especially disastrous in the south-central zone of the country, with the regions of Ñuble, Biobío and La Araucanía as the most affected.
According to the latest balance offered by the Investigative Police, more than 20 people have died from the fires and the National Disaster Prevention and Response Service (Senapred) estimates 3,276 victims and 1,159 houses destroyed.
It is estimated that more than 700,000 hectares of land have been burned, forcing the government to declare a state of catastrophe in the most affected areas. The magnitude of the disaster has been made clear in the images captured by space satellites.
And the flames do not give up for now. President Gabriel Boric warned that the weather conditions will be unfavorable. "There are going to be very difficult days for Chile," he said.
Behind some of the fires seems to be the hand of man. Rodrigo Díaz, governor of Biobío, one of the most affected regions, affirmed that "there are people criminally setting fires."
Large fires are not something new for the country, which already experienced a critical year in 2017, but what makes those of 2023 so damaging?
1. Climate change and drought
Chile has been experiencing a severe drought for some time that scientists directly relate to climate change. According to data from the Aquae Foundation, the country is suffering the worst drought since 1950, forcing the Government to declare a water emergency in many areas of the country.
Álvaro Promis, professor of Forest Sciences and Nature Conservation at the University of Chile, told BBC Mundo that "one of the effects of climate change has been the severe droughts that Chile has been suffering in recent years, which have come affecting the vitality of the soil, especially in the central zone of the country".
As the soils are drier, the vegetation suffers what experts call "hydric stress". In short, the plant material is drier and burns more easily, something that those who fight fires on the front line have already noticed.
Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Traverso, from the Military Emergency Unit, sent by the Spanish government to collaborate with the extinction tasks, told the journalist Paula Molina that "the drought is more than remarkable. The heavy fuel, with the trees, or light fuel, such as brush, pastures and crops, are quite dry already in late summer."
2. An orography favorable to the winds
The experts consulted agree that the orography of the most affected terrain favors the spread of fire and makes it difficult to deal with it.
The abundance of hills and valleys contributes to the winds acquiring greater speed, which spreads the flames.
Combined with other factors, high winds make fires more dangerous and difficult to control.
"When the humidity drops below 30%, the temperature rises above 30 degrees and the winds reach more than 30 km/h, the probability that we have a fire is incredibly high and all this has happened in the country," Traverse explained.
3. The influence of invasive plant species
In the area of central and southern Chile, invasive plant species that have been introduced by man abound.
The native oak has been giving way in recent decades to the radiata pine or eucalyptus, species imported from North America and Australia that now dominate the forest exploitations that proliferated in this area of the country, especially from legal facilities introduced during the military government of General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990). Today, the production of pulp and wood from these farms has a great weight in the Chilean economy.
Pine and eucalyptus trees form continuous blocks of grove where llamas find it easy to spread.
"Insigne pine and eucalyptus burn relatively quickly, and in addition to that we have other invasive shrub species that generate a very high amount of fuel," Aníbal Pauchard, director of the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity at the University of California, told BBC Mundo. Conception.
4. Leaving the field
According to Promis, another of the factors that have aggravated the problem is that "in recent times towns and cities have grown, and there has been an abandonment of agricultural activities and fields, which are now more likely to be the scene of the beginning of a fire".
"Before there were areas of wheat and corn, but globalization has caused many of the typical agricultural uses to fall and a large part of the products are now imported," says Promis.
Many peasants have abandoned or sold their land, encouraging real estate speculation, and on land where there is no grazing or agriculture, it is much easier for brush to accumulate and start a fire.
For Pauchard, the abandonment of agriculture, added to the excessive proliferation of large forestry operations, show that "there has been mismanagement of land use for decades."
what can happen now
Boric's own words indicate that the battle against fire is far from over. And it's been going on for weeks now.
The Spanish soldier Traverso declared that "it will take time to extinguish".
“We have a fairly large fire, with an axis of almost 100 km, from Santana to Nacimiento. It's the biggest we've seen in a long time."
But once the flames go out, there will be pending challenges.
“We already had big fires in 2017 and now areas that already did then are burning. We run the risk of these processes becoming frequent, with the high social and environmental cost that they entail”, concludes Pauchard.