On August 18th, a fire started in Potrero de Garay, a town near Córdoba, Argentina’s second biggest city located in the country’s central region. In just a day, the flames scorched between 80 and 90 houses. Although an investigation is still ongoing, firefighters believe it was due to an electric post that fell down and ignited the dry grass around it.
This wildfire caused one of the worst economic losses in recent times in the region, according to Diego Concha, chief of Córdoba’s Civil Protection, to a local newspaper. In comparison, during all of 2020, only 30 houses were affected by fires.
The fire season is barely starting, but emergency officials that face these events every day say the upcoming months look to be more complicated than usual. Climate change, as well as social conditions in the region are fueling bigger forest fires.
For Córdoba, wildfires are common at this time of the year, as the hills burn during the dry season, from July till October. The combination of drought, plus strong winds and low humidity during these months generate dangerous fire situations.
“Weather conditions in Córdoba are extreme during winter, which is the dry season. Strong winds and the lack of rain make the perfect fire weather,” explained Nicolás Mari, an environmental science professor at the Gulich Institute, a branch of Argentina’s National Commission for Space Activities (Conae).
According to Mari, the ecology of Córdoba resembles that of other sites that burn frequently, like Spain, Australia and California: all have long dry periods without rain, plus “there are people”, what the expert considered to be an “explosive combination”.
However, recent fires have reached unprecedented levels. In the span of three decades, around 1,600,000 hectares burnt in this province, an area equivalent to 28 times the size of the city of Córdoba.
Still, these numbers didn’t take into account the wildfires that raged through 2020, the worst year on record since 1988. In that year alone, 350 thousand hectares blazed, triggered by the biggest drought in 60 years.
Globally, the link between climate change and wildfires is now more explicit than ever with the publication of the latest UN climate report. The UN experts stated that human influence has likely increased the chance of extreme events, like wildfires, since the 1950s.
The UN document also projected an increased risk of wildfires in South America; as well as potential impacts to a wide range of sectors, including agriculture, forestry, health, and ecosystems.
Everything is connected
As global warming increases, more extreme wildfires have ravaged the region of Córdoba, which is one of the most vulnerable places to forest fires in the whole world.
Mari explained that climate variability has altered the average rainfall and temperatures in the region. “Things are changing, and these changes on a global scale spark unwanted effects at a local and regional level. One of these consequences is wildfires”, stated the expert.
In the last thirty years, 58% of the land in Córdoba’s sierras was under fire, according to a recent study by the Gulich Institute.
Gustavo Nicola, head of the Volunteer Firefighters Federation, agrees with Mari and states that Córdoba is one of the ten places with more risks of wildfires in the world. The firefighter also feared that this season may be very complicated.
“It could be very dangerous because there hasn’t been any rain these past months and we don’t expect it; also there is a severe drought and high temperatures with low humidity: this is a perfect cocktail for the fires to spread”, explained Nicola.
Data from the National Weather Service adds to Nicola’s concerns. In the third quarter of the year, Córdoba expects to have “normal or lower than normal” rainfall and “higher than normal” temperatures.
The human condition
Even though the environmental conditions make the Sierra more prone to fires, Nicola pointed out that 99% of all wildfires in the region start because of human activities, intentional or not.
As preparation for the next fire season, the government’s policies are not focused on prevention, as most of the preventive programs are underfunded, Mari said.
After the events of 2020, the regional government took matters into its own hands. Now, the focus is on monitoring the conditions of the most vulnerable regions, mostly in the urban-rural areas where humans enter in contact with vegetation.
For Mari, the social side of the problem should be taken into account when assessing the danger of a fire season. According to the expert, human activities like deforestation make the region more vulnerable.
In Córdoba over the last years there has been an increase in forest loss, fueled by agriculture and urbanization. When this happens, many use fire as a cheaper way to clear the trees out.
“If we still have forest it would be different, fires do not enter forests. When the sierras burn, it burns grasslands and bushes. The humidity of forests rejects wildfires”, clarified Mari.
Córdoba is losing its forests, not only because of wildfires, but also because of deforestation for agriculture and urbanization, the researcher added.
Between 2001 and 2020, Argentina lost 6.12 Mha of tree cover, equivalent to a 16% decrease in tree cover since 2000, and 1.44Gt of CO₂e emissions, according to Global Forest Watch. 75% of the forest lost was in areas where the main driver was deforestation, according to the organization’s data.
“The destructive combination is not only the complex weather conditions, but also the anthropic factor. What we continue to do wrong is that there is still no change in environmental policies aimed at watching over the environment”, concluded Mari.