The forest fire situation in Colombia is improving. Following the latest report from the Ministry of the Environment last night, 35 fires have been extinguished in the country in the last few hours and only seven are still active, albeit under control. Of these, the one that, according to Minister Susana Muhamad, is most “environmentally sensitive” is the one in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, which is still active on the side of the municipality of Ciénaga.
Of the fires still active, two are in the department of Magdalena, three in Boyaca, one in Cordoba and another in Vichada. There are nine other fires, already extinguished, which are still being monitored to prevent them from being reactivated. Since the beginning of the heat wave and the proliferation of forest fires, a total of 368 outbreaks have been extinguished. Of these, it has been reported that around 95% have been caused by or related to human negligence. In this regard, 26 people have been arrested in connection with the fires.
High temperatures, drought and exceptional weather conditions in recent weeks have facilitated the spread of fires in the country. However, according to the police authorities, the vast majority of the fires have been caused by the negligent or criminal action of man.
Twenty-six people have already been arrested in the country in connection with their alleged involvement in the fires and will face charges for environmental crimes, with sentences of up to 15 years in prison and fines of up to 900 million pesos. Although of the total, only seven of the arrested persons are reportedly related to direct arson, the other 19, are accused of serious environmental crimes.
Regarding one of the fires that broke out in the eastern hills of Bogota, the mayor of the capital, Carlos Galan, reported that it was started by a glass bottle that may have caused the magnifying glass effect due to the significant and unusual solar radiation that has been falling on the city during the last few days. However, the origin of the other outbreaks, which by Friday had devastated 15 hectares of the capital’s green lung, is still being studied.
Critical situation in February
Although the outlook has improved this weekend, environmental experts predict a critical February, and have warned people not to lower their guard. The director of the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM), Ghisliane Echeverry, warned that if everything continues like this, January “will close as the hottest month in Colombia’s history”. Similarly, the IDEAM is working with projections that indicate that February could be even worse.
“From March, a transition to the rainy season will begin, although we will continue with El Nino in the background, but the projection is that rainfall will begin to stabilise. The phenomenon may last until April, then it will move into a neutral phase between April and June, where everything is expected to normalise,” said Director Echeverry.
To cope with this still difficult situation, the government has reported that 640 members of the army are being trained to participate in future prevention and outbreak detection interventions in the coming weeks.
Alert for sudden rainfall as well
The country is experiencing an exceptional situation due to the El Nino phenomenon. In this regard, it has been reported that warnings are also being maintained for the possibility of sudden rains as a rebound effect of the high temperatures.
Caution has been urged for possible landslides if this occurs in rural areas. From the Unified Command Post (PMU), officials from different ministries are coordinating the work to extinguish the fires.
The ministries of the environment, education, housing, finance, health, energy, defence and the interior were all present at the PMU, where the country’s president, Gustavo Petro, was also present.
The president announced that this week the Hercules aircraft that will be available for emergencies in the Amazon will begin operating. The government also reported that countries such as Canada, Peru, the United States, Mexico and the European Union have presented concrete plans to help Colombia in its fight against the fires.
Importance of prevention
In order to avoid critical situations, such as these recent ones, as much as possible, government entities have given a series of recommendations to work towards prevention. In this regard, the organisation for global environmental conservation, WWF, has emphasised the work that the authorities must carry out, such as “waste collection days for bottles and glass objects that act as a magnifying glass; paper, plastic, cigarette butts, lighters or other combustible materials that can cause a fire”.
Similarly, WWF also stresses the importance of “forming community networks with forest fire response plans that are capable of alerting fire brigades in the event of a fire”.
As for citizens, the recommendations are simple and appeal to common sense: do not smoke in the forest or throw cigarettes out of car windows; do not carry out controlled burns in vegetation areas, even if fires are not prohibited; do not throw rubbish or other combustible material in forests; do not leave bottles or other glass in vegetation areas; and notify the authorities promptly when small plumes of smoke are spotted.
With regard to reforestation, environmental experts have warned against replanting vegetation in soils that do not yet meet certain conditions after a forest fire. For this, they explain, it is better to wait until the weather conditions and the soil itself are suitable so that the planted species can take root and restore the balance of the ecosystem.