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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Colombia, a usually wet nation, reels amid widespread wildfires

A military helicopter drops water from a bucket over fires near Bogota, Colombia, Jan. 29, 2024. Firefighters have been battling fires in the mountains around Bogota for a full week as dozens of other blazes have burned across the country. (Federico Rios/The New York Times)

By Annie Correal and Genevieve Glatsky

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

For a full week, firefighters have been battling fires in the mountains around Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, as dozens of other blazes have burned across the country, in what officials say is the hottest January in three decades.

The president has declared a national disaster and asked for international help fighting the fires, which he says could reach beyond the Andes Mountains and erupt on the Pacific Coast and in the Amazon.

Colombia’s fires this month are unusual in a country where people are more accustomed to torrential rain and mudslides 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 El Niño was a natural phenomenon that occurred cyclically, but that with climate change, “these events are more and more intense and more and more extreme.”

This month 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 forests, savannas and normally damp highlands known as páramos, turning parts of the country into a tinderbox.

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

Fires have also broken out in neighboring Venezuela and Ecuador, including in an ecological preserve.

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

“One of the hardest things is finishing a shift and turning back to look at the mountains only to see more hot spots,” said Santiago Botello, a risk-management coordinator for Bogotá’s volunteer firefighters. The volunteers, he said, make up about a quarter of the roughly 600 firefighters who have been battling the fires in the mountains above the city of nearly 8 million.

“It is physically exhausting,” said Botello, adding, “Obviously it is not common to see something like this in Bogotá.”

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

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

Helicopters continued to hover over Bogotá. Some were Black Hawk helicopters donated by the United States in 2022 and renamed by Colombia’s government “Guacamayas,” or macaws, signaling their new role fighting fires, instead of just the decadeslong drug war.

As the helicopters hauled water to hot spots, hiking trails that usually draw tourists with their lush woods, mountain streams and panoramic views remained closed.

Eduardo Campos, a biologist who runs a company offering hikes in the mountains, said a carpet of leaves left by nonnative species, including pines and eucalyptus, had dried out during El Niño and had fueled the flames.

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

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

Susana Muhamad, Colombia’s environment minister, said Friday that 95% of the fires across the country had been started by people rather than by natural causes such as lightning — either accidentally, while burning garbage or clearing the land for farming, or with criminal intent. As of this week, 26 people had been detained.

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

The fires have been particularly devastating to the páramos, which are home to rare plants called frailejones and are crucial to supplying water to urban populations.

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

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

In seeking international assistance, including from the United Nations, President Gustavo Petro said this weekend: “The emergency due to global warming, combined with the phenomenon of El Niño, has necessitated action on several fronts. One has to do with heat waves and human health. Another with the forest fires. Another with the 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 needed to prepare to address what could be “a planetary emergency in the Amazonian rainforest.”

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

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

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

“We should have already had all the instruments of international cooperation ready, airplanes, everything,” he said. “The issue is the country is not ready. It is clearly not ready.”

Responding to the claims, Colombia’s environment ministry said in a statement Monday that it had been planning for El Niño for months, citing as an example the aerial response now underway.

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

“This situation is not a surprising streak of fires,” the statement said. “It is the phenomenon of El Niño combined with the climate crisis that has lead to extremely dry conditions. To this, let’s add the hand of man that, intentionally or accidentally, has caused the fires.”

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