Coipo Forestín Needs Help!!
For the past two weeks man-made wild fires have been running rampant through fields, forests, farms, and, oh no, vineyards in central Chile.
Coipo Forestin is the fire fighting Smokey Bear counterpart in Chile, tirelessly urging Chileans and visitors to put out campfires and cigarette butts, to help avoid forest fires. Well, the ever smiling Forestín is failing, and his patrons, the national forest service (CONAF) and the Chilean people, are once again facing a natural disaster of monumental scope.The current situation surely has Forestín’s live progenitor, the rodent-like nutria, running for the safety of open water.
Close to twenty thousand people have been fighting these fires. Military and national police personnel have joined the regular established CONAF brigades, volunteer firemen, and public volunteers and residents on the ground to combat these fires. As is so often the case with natural disasters, Chilean civil society is mobilizing at all levels to fill in where public services and relief providers fall short. In fact, this is one laudable feature of disaster relief “response” that characterizes Chile’s approach to disasters; they are always ready to rush to the aid of affected victims of natural disasters. Young and old alike drop what they are doing, set up collection points for donated relief supplies, establish accounts for cash contributions, and get directly involved.
The Chilean government is receiving assistance from neighboring and other friendly countries, including brigades of trained and equipped fire fighters, cistern helicopters and winged aircraft that can drop water, fire retardant liquids, and fire fighters into the fires. Early in the battle to extinguish the rapidly expanding multiple fires a Chilean who lives in the US, married to a grandson of Walmart founder Walton, offered to finance several days of a 747-400 Global Super Tanker that can drop huge amounts of water on wild fires. Not an official US contribution, and reportedly not initially welcomed by the Chilean bureaucrats who first dealt with the offer, the plane eventually arrived and for the past few days has been soaking specific areas where fires are most active, while providing the Chilean media and their public followers with something admittedly quite spectacular to watch and discuss, and as is usual, criticize and develop instant expertise on related subjects like aircraft, fire suppression, water pumping, and everything else entailed in dropping water on a fire.
To add fuel to the fire, so to speak, Russian President Putin sent a special fire fighting super plane, an Iluishyn that is smaller than the 747 and more agile for this type of activity and terrain. Over the last few days an up-to-date version of the Cold War has unfolded, peacefully, over the merits and shortcomings of these two giant fire fighters, the “supertanker” and his Russian counterpart, “El Luchín”, as the Chileans have named it. Hopefully their impact will be additive and justify the cost of their participation, and the hype. One thing is for sure, flyovers of these giant planes have been morale builders for the thousands of firemen, police, and volunteers on the ground who are risking their lives in the hills trying to put out these fires. How fast these two planes can land, reload with water, and take off again has become an alternative to the normal Soaps on daytime TV. Each is down to just minutes in the process, due mainly to the learned efficiency of the firemen, the bomberos, assigned to this task at the Chilean air force base just outside of Santiago.
There were warnings two months ago and longer that this would be a potentially bad fire year in Chile. Daily high temperatures have been creeping up over time and the periods of extreme dry weather are longer and less predictable. In other words, climate change is happening in Chile, a country very vulnerable to the effects of this change. People who watch and report on these things were publicly warning of a potentially dangerous summer for fire. But not just this year; most experts predict a constant increase over time of the conditions favorable to fire.
Chile is not a novice as regards the threat and nature of forest fire. For especially the past fifty years, since the Chilean government began to take forest sector development seriously, the threat of destructive forest fires, and the need to make an effort to prevent them, has been officially and publicly recognized. (An earlier posting in this blog provides some background, admittedly only one view, partially historical and somewhat personal, of forestry development in Chile, and the role fire has played in Chile’s land management, and mismanagement.)
When my group of Peace Corps Volunteers was preparing for our service in Chile, now a half century ago, one of the exercises I recall vividly and with no fondness, was the firebreak we prepared with picks, saws, axes and shovels, along the edge of a pine plantation in the University of Washington’s Pack Forest near the Snoqualmie Pass, on the edge of Mt. Ranier. Why we were made to prepare for this nonexistent forest fire, instead of learning Spanish which we all really needed, became very clear as we went to work in Chile, promoting the reforestation of eroded hillsides in precisely the area of coastal central Chile where today these wildfires are burning. The smallholder farmers who planted trees, be they pine or eucalyptus or other species available in the government nurseries, would have to protect them when these trees began to grow. Fire prevention was a priority subject to be included in our reforestation plans and programs.
So, fifty years ago our colleague Norton Thomas, who now lives and farms in upstate Wisconsin, was living in Empedrado, near Constitución; Al Howlett was in Yumbel; Doug and Kiva McEwen were in Portezuelo just west of Chillán; Carl Kindel was in Llico; David Lawrence was in Vichuquen; and….well, if you are following the news today on Chile’s fires, you get the picture. These are the hot spots of today’s fires, and back then we knew it too. There was a component of fire protection inherent in reforestation programs way back then. Al Howlett had a poster he carried around with him when he went to visit farmers, that showed a fire burning a farmer’s trees, and some of the ways that farmer could protect his trees from fire.
When Al left Yumbel in 1969, to return to the US, he wrote a report for his Chilean counterparts and for any volunteer who might follow him in Yumbel. The report includes an entire chapter, two and a half typed (yes, typed, with type-overs, carbon paper erasures and all), in which he details the resources available in the area to combat fires. The Carabineros, the train station, the volunteer bomberos, the municipality, the government offices of agriculture and public works, the schools, and the farmers themselves all had some sort of equipment or personnel that could be mobilized to combat forest fires. After listing a full page of resources, Al wrote “But, even with all these material and human resources, the fire prevention and control system is lacking. The problem is with coordination and cooperation. First: who is in charge? Some say it’s SAG, others say Carabineros, some even say it is each individual landowner. This has to be sorted out.”
Later in his report, after listing a series of problems and suggestions to make things better, Al made the following suggestion for anyone following him as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Yumbel: “I recommend anyone following me in Yumbel join the bomberos, the volunteer firefighting company.” Al didn’t join, but he laments that now. “The bomberos have cooperated with us and have several times asked me to join. This group of citizens fights all types of fires. It is a service to the town and also serves to get you involved in the social life of the town. And, after the job of planting trees, protecting them from fire is the next most important job. Joining the bomberos would help you understand the reality of forest fires and how a bombero fights fire; you would understand how a bombero feels about fire and about trees, what they need when they are fighting fires, and how different institutions can help with fire fighting. Then, as a member of SAG, you would be more helpful in fighting fire in Yumbel.”
But this was fifty years ago. Where do things stand now? More trees, bigger trees, pretty much the same kinds of trees. More resources to fight fires. More knowledge of fire and fire suppression. More and better fire fighting equipment. Really? Then why the mega fire situation we have today? The fires burned out of control for days in these exact same places where fifty years ago the inhabitants knew that the trees they were planting needed to be protected from fire. Over the years since then, it’s almost like the country has become tolerant of forest fire, or maybe a bit indifferent. Most Chileans don’t live in the areas that are burning, they live in cities and half of them in Santiago. Urban life tends to take you away from the earth, the forest, nature. An indifference, not to say ignorance, sets in, taking over your feelings. This tendency must be acknowledged, or the next time, and the time after that, the sad results will be the same.
The earthquake and tsunami of 2010 showed that a sense of indifference to disaster preparedness had set in; institutions were not ready for what happened, at least not sufficiently. The public was not ready, although quakes and tremors are frequent. The disaster that ensued forced the country, public and private sectors included, to do serious analyses of the state of preparedness for these types of events. Like never before, Chile made the investments necessary to upgrade its early warning and monitoring institutions, skill levels of first responders, and regulations and codes for buildings and homes. Early evacuation procedures were established throughout the riskiest areas and civilian evacuation drills made routine. The job is not done. It probably is never totally done but Chile seems much better prepared today for seismic events than it was in 2010.
Now, something similar will happen regarding forest fires. Why? Because the costs of inaction have risen to an unacceptable level. The fires this time were explosive in time. In a two day period in mid January, the area burning doubled from about 10,000 hectares to over 20,000. In just the month of January, this has grown to close to 400,000 hectares. For the entire fire season, close to 600,000 hectares have burned, five times the prior 2015-16 season. This will continue to increase. Over half of this area is forest plantations, almost 20% native forest.
The incessant drumbeat of 24-hour news services and social media, while helping to raise the public’s awareness of forest fires, has created a haze thicker than the smoke from Chile’s hundred fires. There is a chaos of hazy thinking. My friend and erstwhile defender of Chile’s flora and fauna, early proponent of National Parks and wildlife reserves, Bernardo Zentilli, suggests in a personal communication that “This wave of forest fires is crazy, to be sure, but at the same time the shear amount of stupidities that are going around is frightening”. He suggests that we need some perspective on the issue of forest fires, so we need to read (again) Luis Otero’s book “La Huella del Fuego”, which contains much valuable historical information on the evolution of Chile’s southern forest under the original Mapuche control and subsequent European colonization.” His account describes the historical record of massive burning of the native forests throughout the country, mostly to clear the land for agriculture and livestock.
Chile has a history of intentional setting of forest fires. The biggest ever was the purposeful torching of all of the Llanquihue area by Vicente Perez Rosales, rewarded for his efforts by having a most wonderful National Park named after him. Bernardo reminds us that “In Aysén between 1920 and 1940, almost 2.8 million hectares of forest were burned, causing terrible erosion and silting up of fjords including Puerto Aysén.” Over the years forest fires have been a constant on the landscape not only in this part of Chile but also in the natural native forests of the south, most recently an extensive fire in Torres Del Paine National Park several years ago.
Referring to today’s fires, Bernardo continues, “From the beginning of these fires and after learning about more than a dozen simultaneous focal points I began to consider the possibility of intentional fires, arson. Heat and wind do not start fires. Behind every fire set to pasture, natural forest or plantation is a match, except in very rare situations, and behind every match is a human being, intent on starting a fire, simply unknowingly or irresponsibly doing so, or possibly a pyromaniac.” Bernardo is probably right, and we may have to accept that the fires were mostly set by man and woman. Intentional? Criminal? Maybe so, and that issue will be litigated harshly in the press and public opinion because there is little public confidence in the legal authorities to quickly resolve this type of crime. Plus, doing so is difficult.
Today there is a current within the ever suspicious Chilean public (and the US Wall Street Journal) that wants to believe the fires were set by Mapuche revolutionaries aided and abetted by foreign provocateurs, or by the forest industries so they could collect the insurance, or by miscreants wanting to cause problems for President Bachelet, or a number of other conspiracies that might fit their view of the world. The word “terrorism” is also too lightly tossed around. It does seem, though, that carelessness and mindless vandalism are probably the most significant sources of these fires. Regardless of the cause of these fires, the first task is to put them out, and that is being done, to the credit of many public and private individuals and institutions.
Now, through the haze created by the fires, you hear some shrill, noteworthy suggestions for future action, some reasonable, many far fetched and some pointedly ideologically motivated, all deserving of serious consideration and debate. At the top of the list is the accusation that tree plantations cause fires so planting fast growing introduced tree species like pine and eucalyptus in Chile is the main culprit and must stop. Many seem to believe native species like raulí, coigue, and ciprés should be planted instead. Locating plantations close to homes and villages must be prohibited. Bomberos, now volunteers, should all be paid employees of the state. Congress should approve legislation to convert CONAF from its semi private status into a full government agency, and while they are at it, pass legislation to upgrade ONEMI, the overall disaster response agency so it finally has comprehensive oversight over disasters.
I would think one important starting point to understand the key issues of this megafire in Chile, should be a top to bottom analysis of what happened in the forestry town of Santa Olga. This terrible flash elimination of a town, not far from main roads, and all its homes, probably holds every clue and key characteristic of what happened and did not happen in these fires. A fully public assessment of what happened in this unfortunate town, made public for all to consider, would be a good starting point. In fact, I hope it has already begun. The people of Santa Olga deserve all the support they can get. This event is the poster child of this years megafires.
There are many important questions, and if you look beyond the pain and personal loss caused by these fires, you will find a discussion that could miss the big questions; not see the forest for the trees, as we say. To believe that to protect against forest fires you have to plant native tree species instead of exotic pines and eucalyptus ignores fifty years of private actions, public policies, and investments which explain why and where people planted trees in plantations in the first place, and why many of them will continue to do so. The context for this discussion has to be broadened. Apparently many people don’t know that most of these plantations in question were planted on eroded land which maybe at one time supported native forests. But before being planted with pines and eucalyptus most of these lands were cleared of the native vegetation for the purpose of producing grains, meat, skins, and wool, much of it for export. So the dual objectives of erosion control and income and employment creation from wood products, were joined. Fast-growing species that could also produce fiber for pulp, paper, and wood were chosen to speed up the process. Incentives through tax reductions were put in place to broaden the scope of the forestation programs. And it worked.
For the last forty years, about 95,500 hectares have been forested or reforested per year. Today, Chile has about 2.4 million hectares of forest plantations. Based upon this, Chile is 11th in wood production in the world, and 10th in pulp and paper production. Chile is a world leader in wood products production, and it is mostly based on plantations of exotic species. You can argue that only a few got the benefits of this development, or that the state, that is, Chilean taxpayers, so heavily subsidized this sector that other more important uses of the state’s treasury were ignored (like health care and education), and that the environmental consequences of these forest plantations were too high. But a half century of diverse governments had a hand in promoting this forest sector development.
What came along with this successful forest sector development were the challenges that, by the way, often also come with agriculture. If you grow corn, you pick a variety that grows good corn, and you plant it in a way that best fits the land, climate, and resources you have as a farmer. If the government subsidizes fertilizer, you probably apply it. You need water, and lots of water, so you get it where you can; you compete with urban and mining needs for water. You fight pests. Same thing goes for grapes. Same for apples and oranges and avocados, tobacco, sugar beets, and sunflowers. Lombardy poplars were planted for tongue depressors, matches and lolypop sticks. Plantations is one way you get a return for your investment and can produce a product consumers can pay for. What is the difference in planting hectares and hectares of pine or eucalyptus, compared to hectares of olive trees, grapes, corn and wheat? All are planted on lands that at one time supported native vegetation. And, tree plantations are usually planted on land not apt for agriculture, in fact, the law requires it. The overall area in forest plantations is no longer growing. Most planting of pine and eucalyptus is replanting of harvested plantations, second and third generation rotations.
As we have also seen, there are other dimensions of forest plantations that some object to. The consolidation of the forest industry sector bothers some, especially when the consolidated industries get caught colluding on price and illegally influencing public officials. These are real problems, but they don’t have much to do with whether the plantations that support these industries are planted with pine or eucalyptus. The expanse of plantations in central Chile has over time caused disruption to traditional small holder farming. Issues to ponder, especially when legislating incentives or disincentives for different land uses.
However, the reality is that Chile has to protect the 2.4 million hectares of plantations, from disease but mostly from fire, because they exist. The private companies which own much of these plantations spend more per hectare on fire prevention on their plantations than the government spends on protection of a much larger area of plantations owned by small and medium businesses. CONAF, which has the main responsibility to protect and defend against forest fires does not have the means to do so. It is a very professional organization, but its structure prevents it from tackling forest fire protection in a timely and efficient way. Much will be said about this institutional weakness during the weeks ahead, as the Chilean Congress debates and hopefully legislates a reformed CONAF with more clout and more resources.
So what about the loss of native vegetation, the concerns for the natural forest that once covered most of the country south of the Maipo River? Specific to our issue of forest plantations, Chile has 13.6 million hectares of native forest, half of which is in some form of official protection. Admittedly most of this is in the Andean mountain range and in the regions further south. But the issue of exotic tree species in plantations versus native forest species is a broader issue than just its role in fires. Anyone who knows Chile would have to agree that the incredible collection of national parks and reserved natural areas while potentially one of the best in the world, is not being managed and protected as it should. It isn’t even organized into a system with central oversight and budget support. Park guards are loyal professionals, but they have very few resources to do their job.
The discussion of native versus exotic species in plantations is an interesting one, even important, but if your concern is with the disappearance of native natural vegetation, then yes, what is replanted where the fires burned this time is an issue. In fact, I would propose that the entire issue of what gets planted and where is important; plantations no matter what kind should not be too close to homes and villages, roads and rivers. But in the cases where plantations were and continue to be too close to homes, was it the trees that got too close, or the homes? It’s a complex set of factors that must be reconsidered in the haze left by these fires. My guess is that if you leave an empty space between tree plantations and a village, houses will increasingly encroach; unless the plantation is fenced like vineyards, fruit orchards, and olive plantations are. It’s the same issue on the outskirts of Valparaiso, where surely precarious dwellings are being built again after the most recent fire there, near the trees planted at the tops of the hills.
This blog has argued several times that Chile’s most important long term environmental issue is the protection of the spectacular natural areas found throughout the country. Private money is coming into this sector to partner with public funds because so far political leadership has not been willing to pay enough to protect and expand these areas so important to tourism that could be a huge boost to the national economy. But just like paying enough to fight fires early and effectively, the national budget is stingy for this kind of investment.
Just one example should suffice to make my point. Forty years ago, in the Nevados de Chillán, another Peace Corps Volunteer, Tony Povilitis, on behalf of CONAF, spent enough time in the wildlands above Chillán to determine if the huemúl, Chile’s emblematic deer, was still present in that part of the Andes. Huemules were sighted regularly in Aisén, but not in these hills. Tony determined there were huemules in this part of the Ñuble province, and since then, he and his colleagues in CONAF, CODEPP, Forestal Arauco, and the local municipality have studied this endangered animal and worked to create an environment for the huemúl to at least survive, if not expand its habitat. The point? This is a fabulous natural area apt for protecting the huemúl. But that requires some investment to create a contiguous reserve so the huemúl will survive. Maybe there should be a National Park in this area. Ñuble, and Chillán do not have a national park nearby. This huge population of Chileans deserves a place to go for the kinds of natural recreation most people want and thrive on. It seems most logical that as Ñuble becomes a new region in Chile, with Chillán as its capital, A national park to protect the huemúl makes sense.
So while there are fire related issues, many of which have to do with forest plantations and how they are created and managed, maybe the painful experience of this last round of megafires will precipitate some serious action directed at the broad land management issues in the country. The calls for planting several crops in an area to provide a more defensable mosaic of plants should not be just directed at replacing tree plantations, but rather as a viable land management option for thousands and thousands of hectares in these same areas where small and medium size landowners are attempting to make a living. The efforts by INFOR and others to promote agroforestry systems combining trees, animals, crops, and grasses hold promise for many parts of the country. With the right incentives and technical input, mixed agroforestry systems could expand over much of central and southern Chile.
In an earlier posting on this blog, I suggested that the country now owes a debt to its natural forest. Fifty years of scientific research, training, public and private investment, and well thought out incentive programs are needed in support of the native, natural forest, on a par with what was done for the plantation based wood products industrial sector for the past fifty years.
And last but not least, two important suggestions: If you can, have your first born join the bomberos for a summer in forest country. And equally important, give El Coipo Forestín a hand.
As Forestin’s counterpart Smokey says, “Only you can prevent forest fires“.
Posted on February 6, 2017. In Santiago, Chile.