Firefighters are still struggling to prevent further outbreaks of a major forest fire in Ruitoque, in the department of Santander, in eastern Colombia. The conflagration started on the road linking the municipalities of Floridablanca and Piedecuesta, south of the capital Bucaramanga, last Saturday morning. For more than ten hours, relief agencies worked to control the emergency, and by Sunday night most of the flames had been extinguished, but the wind has reactivated several smoke plumes.
The fire became huge and spread through the mountain towards residential areas of the two municipalities in the south of the metropolitan area of Bucaramanga. The flames generated panic among the community, forcing the evacuation of dozens of houses in the exclusive sector of Ruitoque Condominium and other peasant homes, located in the lower part of that sector, after the fire had devastated more than 300 hectares of forest. More than 20 firefighting teams from Piedecuesta, with units from Floridablanca and Bucaramanga, are working to extinguish the fire.
Drought and forest fires
The important drought that the country is experiencing, due to the summer season but above all due to the strong impact of the El Niño phenomenon, could be behind the proliferation of forest fires, in a particularly critical year for the country in this respect.
Although the origin of this fire in Santander has not yet been clearly determined, the first hypothesis of the authorities points to an illegal burning of leaves that got out of control and caused the fire. The abnormally high temperatures in the region would have facilitated the spread of the flames through the forest near the road.
Jorge Peña, chief of operations of the Bucaramanga Fire Department, informed that the fire not only compromised an important stretch of vegetation, but also endangered some structures, among them, the school Gimnasio Saucara, some areas of the International Hospital of Colombia and even the mentioned residential sector of the Ruitoque Condominium.
Although the moments of greatest risk and activity were experienced during the day on Saturday, the firefighting continues, in view of the different outbreaks and reactivations that occurred yesterday, Sunday and even this morning.
In fact, on Saturday afternoon, aircraft from Rionegro, Antioquia, were present in the area. Another helicopter, on behalf of the national firefighters, was also present.
Effects on fauna
The authorities have warned of the significant impact that this fire has also had on the local fauna. In this sense, the population has been asked not to harm animals that appear in urban areas, disoriented in their flight from the fire.
The mayor of Floridablanca asked for help from the National Government in the extinguishing tasks, after the local and regional authorities had been fighting the fire for a few hours. The help arrived quickly with the deployment of military troops.
“So far we have vehicles from Piedecuesta and Floridablanca, but more support is needed,” said the member of one of the fire departments. He added that there is accumulated heat in the ground and a reflection from glass or plastic bags can generate an emergency at any moment. The municipalities and the Santander government have asked citizens for caution, because the high temperatures are activating all the fire alerts.
The mayor of Floridablanca and the governor of Santander, Juvenal Diaz, requested support with aircraft to the Ministry of Defense. The regional president has confirmed the presence of a light aircraft and a helicopter in the area to fight the flames that threatened to spread through the area of Mesa de Ruitoque.
The last hour
Although the fire seemed to be under control by Sunday afternoon, smoke plumes could still be seen. “We managed to support Mogotes with water discharges and we flew over the sector. The situation looks much better,” the governor announced on his social networks late in the afternoon.
This Monday morning, and after 48 hours of fighting the fire, the governor explained that they have flown over the area of the fire, where “smoke columns have been detected in the sector of Carabineros”. The governor announced the immediate presence of two helicopters to prevent the fire from being reignited.
Although the huge flames that caused panic among the population on Saturday are not visible, the high temperatures on the ground have caused several smoke columns to appear. Because of this, the military and firefighters have to repeatedly soak the area, in order to lower the ground temperature and prevent further serious outbreaks.
The alerts for this type of phenomena will be activated at their maximum level until May, when experts expect the effects of El Niño to diminish. Until then, Colombia will face four critical months due to the drought and its consequences.