Chile and wildfires — what does the threat look like?

Over the last 30 years the number of fires has increased significantly at the global level, and what is evident, is that a dangerous, large-scale feedback loop that promotes wildfires.

Forests, woodlands and grasslands hold much of Earth’s terrestrial carbon. When they burn, more carbon dioxide is released, increasing concentrations in the atmosphere and causing land and sea surface temperatures to rise. This warming increases the likelihood of even more widespread and intense fires and exacerbates the severe weather and sea level rise we are now beginning to experience.

In the last three years, as global temperatures spiked to new records, it felt like the whole world was ablaze. Everywhere we looked, a series of "worst-ever" fires damaged and destroyed ecosystems and human communities on nearly every continent. And sadly, these events don't appear to be ceasing.

"Under new climate conditions, this looks to be the norm by 2050." 

In 2016-2017 alone, close to 1.5 million acres burned in Chile  almost twice the area of the U.S. state of Rhode Island. It was the largest area burned during a single fire season since detailed record-keeping began in the early 1960s.

A Montana State University-led team has discovered several reasons why massive fires continue to burn through south-central Chile, and why Chile is now looking at newer and more technical resources to help them fight fires effectively going forward.

Chile has been experiencing low humidity, high winds, extreme temperatures and mega-droughts  which have contributed significantly to the area’s fire risk. However, researchers have also concluded that large portions of its diverse native forests have been converted to more flammable tree plantations.

Lead author Dave McWethy, an assistant professor in MSU's Department of Earth Sciences, said Chile has replaced many of its native forests with plantation forests to supply pulp and timber mills that produce paper and wood products. As a result, he said, highly flammable non-native pine and eucalypt forests now cover the region. Eucalypt trees, which are native to Australia, and pine trees native to the United States contain oils and resins in their leaves that, when dry, can easily ignite.

"Chile replaced more heterogeneous, less flammable native forests with structurally homogeneous, flammable exotic forest plantations at a time when the climate is becoming warmer and drier," said McWethy.

"This situation will likely facilitate future fires to spread more easily and promote more large fires into the future."

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Co-author Anibal Pauchard, a professor at the University of Concepcion and researcher at the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity in Chile, said wildfires have been a part of the Chilean landscape for centuries, but they have grown larger and more intense in recent decades, despite costly government efforts to control them.

"Unfortunately, fires in central Chile are promoted by increasing human ignitions, drier and hotter climate, and the availability of abundant flammable fuels associated with pine plantations and degraded shrublands dominated by invasive species," Pauchard said.

According to Chile's firefighting agency, Corporación Nacional Forestal (Conaf), the upcoming 2018-2019 fire season is expected to be more complex than the previous one. These trends have lead government agencies to look at ways they can best support their communities and those who're responsible for fighting fires in Chile.

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Officials have begun to prepare and facilitate national coordination on public outreach efforts to encourage offsetting flammable materials from buildings, expedite emergency access to roads, vegetation management at urban-forest zones, and increased coordination between regional firefighting agencies. In addition, two of the world's largest firefighting helicopters will be stationed in Biobío region and Maule region to assist with efforts.

Individuals in Chile are advised to stay abreast of weather and wildfire updates, have emergency and evacuation plans in place, and adhere to all instructions issued by local authorities (e.g. evacuation orders).

Among other things, the researchers recommended that Chile try to move away from exotic plantations toward more heterogeneous, less flammable native forests.

"Protecting and restoring native forests would likely buffer the negative impacts of fires that are projected to continue to increase into the future," McWethy said.

This is a common issue amongst many wildfire-prone areas, including Australia.

The government has increased the annual budget for National Forestry Corporation (CONAF) who manages fire emergencies.

Initiatives include the inclusion of a Hermes 900 MALE UAV of the Chilean Air Force, to the firefighter's fleet. According to local sources, Chile hopes to ultimately procure between six and nine Hermes 900s, depending on upcoming budget priorities, to equip reconnaissance platoons operating in support of the mechanised infantry components of reinforced brigades.

Climate change has made wildfires collectively one of the most destructive extreme natural events we face, and this trend is likely to worsen in the coming years. Unless we take careful and thoughtful actions, providing education and incentives for adapting to wildfires as well as enforcing stricter rules to prevent them, we risk much more than we realise.

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As technology providers, we will continue to dedicate our time to building software that helps provide safety and ease to those who operate in harm's way. There's a long way to go, but we're proud to be at the forefront of this industry. 

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