Colombia has requested humanitarian aid to fight the wave of fires that has been ravaging the country since it began in 2024. President Gustavo Petro confirmed yesterday that he has activated the protocols to be able to access this international aid, after the Institute of Hydrography, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam) confirmed that the crisis due to high temperatures will continue in its maximum phase until the beginning of March.
Since the El Niño phenomenon began in November last year, more than 280 fires have been declared in a country that is not accustomed to this type of crisis, thanks to its high rainfall, even in summer seasons. However, this year the drought is wreaking havoc and the low cloud cover is favoring high daytime temperatures that are exacerbating the crisis.
State capacities exceeded
This measure, as announced by the president late last night, January 24, was taken in view of the upcoming situation of saturation of the country’s own resources to face the forest fire crisis.
“All air force equipment is being used to put out fires in dozens of places in the country, but Ideam’s prediction says that the warming crisis will extend through all of February and part of March. For this reason I have ordered the activation of international aid protocols,” wrote the president in his social networks.
The situation is absolutely exceptional in a country unaccustomed to forest fires and which does not have significant resources to deal with this type of crisis. Although the president had initially vetoed an immediate request for help, a few hours later he backed down, in the face of worrying predictions that the situation will continue for at least the next six weeks.
“We are going to evaluate at what point circumstances exceed the capacity of the Government, of the State, to solve the problem, then we will also bring international aid, which in these cases becomes fundamental and which has been given, for example, in the case of the fires in Chile”, stated the president shortly before advancing this request for aid.
Natural Disaster Decree
The president explained that the natural disasters decree allows the executive to move budget items to face the climatic emergency, as with the tragedy in Choco, where a landslide caused 39 deaths. Petro even announced that his government was studying the possibility of extending the decree for a year, in order to be able to guarantee aid to those affected by these fires once the worst drought season is over.
According to the information shared by the Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Susana Muhamad, fire alerts were activated in 833 municipalities throughout the country (Colombia has 1102 municipalities in total), while 682 are on red alert.
The minister also confirmed that in 89 municipalities there is a risk of water shortage, so that attending to the emergency has become an important objective for the Military Forces, the Police and the fire department. In spite of the hours of continuous work, several fires remain active and it has not been possible to extinguish them.
President Petro shared a map with the hottest areas of the world these days, specifically where there are important active fires. The zone coincides with the equatorial line, which surrounds the planet, with serious effects in Colombia and Venezuela, as well as in some African countries in the same equatorial zone.
Latest fire report
According to the National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (UNGRD) in the early hours of last night, 25 forest fires remained active throughout the country, mainly concentrated in Cumaribo (Vichada), Bogota, Guarne (Antioquia), Tona (Santander), Valledupar (Cesar), Cucutilla (Norte de Santander), and Duitama and Aquitania (Boyaca).
The firefighting operation was complicated as soon as dawn broke, as the high daytime temperatures throughout the country caused 27 simultaneous fire outbreaks. Nevertheless, Minister Muhamad informed that 179 fires had been extinguished, thanks to the work of 3,825 units of the risk unit service and more than 200 aerial discharges. The minister wanted to highlight the joint work between the Colombian Aerospace Force, the National Police, the Army, the National Risk Unit and the Firefighters.
So far, it has been reported that approximately 600 hectares have been affected in the national territory. In Bogota alone, some 14 hectares have already been consumed by the flames.
Disaster in Berlin Paramo
One of the most complex situations is that of Berlin Paramo, located in Santander. The intense flames have persisted for more than 24 hours, devastating the area’s biodiversity, including hundreds of frailejones. It is estimated that around 100 hectares of a reserve that has been protected for 20 years have been consumed by the fire.
Indignation was at its peak yesterday, when it became known through video images that a man had intentionally set the fire in the sector on the morning of Tuesday, January 23rd. Until that moment it was thought that the origin of the fire was accidental, and it was speculated that it was a spark from a transformer. However, in the images that were released yesterday, it can be clearly seen that a man started the fire by lighting some branches. When the man leaves the scene, the flames quickly spread through the vegetation.
The video, which has been widely shared on social networks, has generated an outcry from the population, who demand that the authorities arrest this man for committing environmental crimes.
Fire in the hills of Bogota
Another of the most worrying fires are the five outbreaks that were detected yesterday in the hills of Bogota. Although the most important outbreak, which affects the area around Quebrada Vieja, was 82% controlled at the end of the day, according to Mayor Carlos Galan, the authorities remained on alert, since most of the fires are suspected to be due to human negligence and criminal behavior.
After 20 water discharges by air, some of the fires were extinguished, but others were still active, waiting for the aerial extinguishing to resume this morning.
Although the mayor has given his assurance that there is no risk for the neighbors of the sectors closest to the fire areas, he has asked for police collaboration, in view of the prospect of adverse weather conditions persisting in the coming days. “I asked the Police for additional support for tomorrow. We consider that the capacities we have are sufficient, but it is foreseeable that the situation could run into difficulties in the coming days due to possible new fires”, said the mayor of the capital.
Petro criticizes mayors
Another of yesterday’s controversies, on account of the fires, is the criticism that President Petro launched towards the country’s mayors, whom he accused of “being incapable” for not having worked on fire prevention.
“The outgoing and incoming mayors were warned about the seriousness of the El Niño phenomenon that the Ideam was predicting. The prediction has been almost completely accurate. In reality, the municipalities, most of them unable to carry out planning and projects, do not have the capacity to generate their own climate risk mitigation plans,” said the president in social networks.
These criticisms come two weeks after Petro declared that this could be “the hottest year in the history of mankind worldwide”, attributing the responsibility to the El Niño phenomenon aggravated by global warming. On that occasion, he also emphasized the importance of water conservation as a priority for mayors, governors and the national government.