Thursday, February 22

Colombia, normally a humid country, battles widespread fires

Helicopters carrying buckets of water fly into the mountains where fires burn, a thick haze periodically covers the sky and residents have been ordered to wear masks and limit driving due to poor air quality.

For an entire week, firefighters have been battling blazes in the mountains around Bogota, Colombia’s capital, while dozens of other fires have burned across the country, in what officials say is the hottest January in recent memory. three decades.

The president declared a national disaster and called for international help to fight the fires, which he said could spread beyond the Andes and erupt on the Pacific coast and in the Amazon.

This month’s fires in Colombia are unusual in a country where people are more accustomed to torrential rains and landslides than fire and ash. They have been attributed to high temperatures and drought exacerbated by the climate phenomenon known as El Niño.

Ricardo Lozano, a geologist and former environment minister of Colombia, said that El Niño is a natural phenomenon that occurs cyclically, but that with climate change “these events are more and more intense and more and more extreme.”

This month has brought record temperatures to Colombia, including 111 degrees Fahrenheit in Honda, a colonial town between the cities of Medellín and Bogotá. It has dried out normally humid forests, savannas and plateaus known as páramos, turning parts of the country into a tinderbox.

As dozens of fires have broken out, more than 100 square miles have burned, and with temperatures continuing to rise, officials say more fires are likely before the rainy season begins in April.

Fires also broke out in neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador, including in an ecological reserve.

Across Colombia, firefighting teams made up of volunteers in many places say they are overwhelmed by fires fueled by heat and winds.

“One of the hardest things is finishing a shift and looking back at the mountains only to see more hot spots,” said Santiago Botello, risk management coordinator for the Bogota Volunteer Fire Department. Volunteers, he said, make up about a quarter of the approximately 600 firefighters who have battled fires in the mountains above the city of nearly eight million people.

“It’s physically exhausting,” Botello said, adding: “Obviously it’s not common to see something like this in Bogota.”

Three fires in the mountains that run along one side of Bogota, known as Cerros Orientales, sent plumes of smoke over the city last week, grounding dozens of flights and leading to the evacuation of some schools and buildings.

The mayor, Carlos Fernando Galán, declared Bogotá’s fires officially under control Sunday evening, although not entirely out, and new fires were reported Monday both in the city and in Sopó, a town on its outskirts.

The helicopters continued to fly over Bogota. Some were Black Hawk helicopters donated by the United States in 2022 and renamed by the Colombian government “Guacamayas,” or macaws, signaling their new role in fighting wildfires, rather than simply the decades-long drug war.

While helicopters transported water to hot spots, hiking trails that usually attract tourists with their lush forests, mountain streams and scenic views remained closed.

Eduardo Campos, a biologist who runs a company that offers mountain hikes, said a carpet of leaves left by non-native species, including pines and eucalyptus, dried out during El Niño and fueled the flames.

The damage was extensive, Campos said. The poor farmers living in the mountains had been displaced; animals including birds, mammals and small snakes had been incinerated; and parts of the forest had been decimated.

“It will take years for the forest to recover,” he said.

Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environment minister, said on Friday that 95% of fires across the country were started by people rather than by natural causes such as lightning: accidentally, while burning rubbish or clearing land for cultivation, or by criminal intent. As of this week, 26 people had been arrested.

At least one person was killed in the fires, a 74-year-old man in La Capilla, a town about 70 miles northeast of Bogotá. Authorities said his body was found in his home after a fire was put out.

The fires were particularly devastating for the páramos, which host rare plants called frailejones and are essential for providing water to urban populations.

Hernán Morantes, an environmental lawyer and supporter of the Páramo of Santurbán, a nature reserve 300 miles northeast of Bogotá, said there had been fires in the area before, “but never of the magnitude of this one.”

The Colombian government is asking people to report the fires with the hashtag “El Niño is not a game”.

Calling for international assistance, including from the United Nations, President Gustavo Petro said this weekend: “The global warming emergency, combined with the El Niño phenomenon, has made action on several fronts necessary. One has to do with heat waves and human health. Another with forest fires. Another with stress on the water supply.”

Brazil, Canada and Peru have promised to send aid to Colombia, the government said.

Petro said countries in the region must prepare to face what could be “a planetary emergency in the Amazon rainforest.”

In recent years, fires in Brazil have consumed large sections of the rainforest.

Petro has made fighting climate change the centerpiece of his agenda, including reducing deforestation and weaning the country from exporting fossil fuels. While some in Colombia applauded the president’s emphasis on the link between this month’s fires and climate change, others criticized him for not taking concrete steps to prepare.

Mr. Morantes, a lawyer and advocate, said fire department budget cuts and a lack of planning had hampered the country’s ability to respond to fires, a claim echoed by officials previously involved in disaster relief.

“We should have already had all the instruments of international cooperation ready, planes, everything,” he said. “The problem is that the country is not ready. He’s clearly not ready.”

In response to these claims, Colombia’s Ministry of the Environment said in a statement Monday that it had been planning for the arrival of El Niño for months, citing the air response currently underway as an example.

The ministry said more than $2 billion had been allocated for fire preparedness and response and that a community network had been created for prevention and communication purposes.

“This situation is not a surprising series of fires,” the statement read. “It is the El Niño phenomenon combined with the climate crisis that has led to extremely dry conditions. To this we add the hand of man who, intentionally or accidentally, caused the fires.”

Federico Rios contributed to the reporting.