The Colombian government yesterday issued a disaster declaration and requested international aid due to dozens of uncontrolled wildfires spreading throughout the country.
“We want to make sure that we have the physical capacity to address and mitigate [these crises],” said Colombian President Gustavo Petro.
Chile, Peru, Canada and the United States have responded to the request, although a timeline for aid is not yet clear.
The fires have already destroyed more than 6,600 hectares of vegetation, according to the National Disaster Risk Management Unit.
Officials say there are 31 active fires, with only nine under control. By declaring a disaster, the government has more leeway to allocate funds to fight the fires. Nearly half of the country’s $508 million designated to combat issues such as wildfires has already been spent.
The high number of fires raises concerns for municipalities that may not have firefighting capacity. According to the Colombian Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies, nearly half of municipalities have been put on maximum alert for fire risk. And according to the National Fire Department of Colombia, about a third don’t have a fire department.
More than 600 soldiers, along with aircraft and vehicles, have been deployed to emergency areas. Colombian police are transporting and spraying water over fires, using planes meant to spray chemicals over coca leaf crops.
Air quality has deteriorated in many areas — particularly in Bogota, the capital, where at least three fires surround the city. Hundreds of firefighters, police officers and volunteers are fighting fires on the mountains surrounding the city.
More than 200 fires have already been put out this month in Colombia, according to the Environment Ministry and disaster agency.
The increase in fires is due to hotter-than-normal temperatures and dry conditions, which have been worsened by the El Niño phenomenon, which is when ocean water in the central Pacific Ocean reaches above-average temperatures, affecting the weather.
Another factor to consider is that in late 2016 the government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
A few months later the rebel group disbanded, abandoning the battle camps and handing over thousands of weapons. The deal put an end to the longest-running armed conflict (pdf) in the Western Hemisphere, according to the International Center for Transitional Justice.
It also emptied the territories FARC had dominated for so long, including the dense forests that provided cover and refuge against the government forces.
In only one year the power vacuum that followed the guerrilla demobilization translated into a sixfold increase in fires within protected areas. Now with unusually dry conditions due to climate factors, the risk of fires is higher than ever.
Source: VOA.Scientific American.