Megafires and the forestry industry in Chile

Friday 9 Feb 2024

In just a few years, south-central Chile has become the centre of increasingly extensive and destructive megafires. With serious environmental consequences, research warns that their effects are more severe than those of a major earthquake. How has the forestry industry contributed to this new and flammable scenario?

For decades, severe and extensive forest fires have affected the central-southern zone of Chile with force and destruction. The fires have left not only deaths and serious environmental impacts in their wake, but severe social and economic consequences.

Increasing in their intensity, magnitude, and destruction, forest fires not only reflect the effects of the climate crisis, but warn of other issues, such as urban expansion and land use changes. But now, in the past few years, we have gone from seeing fires of varying scale and magnitude to a much more terrifying category: megafires. These are powerful massive fires that are extreme in their size and impact. And they are no longer rare but have become dangerously recurrent.

For example, in 2017, the fires in Chile were the worst on record, affecting more than 500,000 hectares, with the cost to extinguish them at $US 350 million. To get an idea of the power of these fires, according to studies by the Center for Climate Science and Resilience (CR)2, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from the fires was nearly 100 million tons, equivalent to 90 percent of the total national CO2 emissions during the entire, previous year. To graph it another way: it was as if 23 years of emissions from all light passenger vehicles in Chile’s capital, Santiago, which is home to about one-third of the country’s 20 million people, were put together.

Six years later, the megafires of the 2023 season overtook 400,000 hectares, at a cost of just over $300 million to the State and claimed 24 fatalities. What is happening that is causing these destructive fires to repeat with greater frequency?

Trees as fuel

Official statistics show that 89 per cent of the area affected by forest fires in Chile occur between the Valparaíso region in the central part of the country and the La Araucanía region in the south. Although most fires are small in size, fires larger than 200 hectares account for only 1 per cent of the total but represent 74 per cent of the total area burned per year.

Moreover, the new mega-fires, which used to happen almost exclusively during the summer, have extended their season and now happen from mid-October to the end of May. In other words, in just the span of one decade, the season for large fires has increased by almost two months in central-southern Chile.

According to land use type, half of the area affected by large fires between 1985 and 2018 was covered by exotic species tree plantations utilising pine and eucalyptus. Native forest accounted for 20 percent. As such, it’s clear that the expansion and occurrence of mega-fires in Chile have a direct link to these large swaths of forest plantations. Exotic species tree farms accumulate more fuel, low humidity, and higher volatile compounds. This, together with drought and lower humidity levels, provides a highly critical and favourable scenario for the occurrence of forest fires.

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Further reading: At least 112 dead as authorities struggle to contain forest fires in Chile (The Guardian)

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