Why Chile is burning and what we can do about it

Forest fire in Chile

Forest fire in the community of Empedrado, in the Maule region of Chile. | Credit: Bomberos de Chile.

By Florencia Ortúzar

Uncontrollable wildfires in Chile have burned more than 500,000 hectares, an area three times the size of Mexico City. With each day that passes, the figure grows. It’s the worst environmental catastrophe the country has seen. Eleven people have died and nearly 4,000 have been affected. The flames have engulfed at least six of Chile’s 15 regions.

Causes of the tragedy

Much has been said about what could have started these voracious fires. Below is a compilation of the various causes, in hopes that understanding them may help us avoid and better control such fires in the future:

  1. Climate change. With the extreme changes in climate, temperatures have risen, causing an eight-year-old drought in the center of the country. This reality has enabled the fulfillment of the so-called “30-30-30” rule, which facilitates the perfect scenario for wildfires: a temperature of 30 degrees Celsius, 30 percent humidity, and winds of 30 kilometers per hour.
  2. The human factor. According to the National Forestry Corporation (CONAF), the organization responsible for fighting wildfires in Chile, the vast majority of fires are actually caused by human neglect. In this case, there have been indications that some of the fires were started intentionally.
  3. Forest plantations. This cause has the deepest roots. In the central and southern regions of the country, forest plantations have been replacing native forest. That means heterogeneous and biodiverse forests have been transformed into thousands of hectares of one single species, eliminating the natural barriers against fire. These monocultures, mostly pine and eucalyptus, quickly absorb large amounts of water, drying the soil around them and stifling most other life. In addition, both of these trees contain flammable elements that contribute to the spread of fire.
  4. Inadequate legislation. Decree Law 701, issued in 1974, sought to boost forestry development through economic incentives, leading to the explosion of large-scale pine and eucalyptus plantations in Chile.  By financing up to 75 percent of monocultures, the decree most benefited those who already owned large tracts of land. It promoted the felling and burning of native forest to replace it with monocultures of exotic species.
  5. High voltage cables. When passing over forests, these cables generate high-temperature heat waves. If a branch falls on a cable, it can easily cause a fire.
  6. Lack of prevention and preparedness. The factors mentioned above were all known realities; the risk of the current fires was latent. More should have been done to prevent them, and to have been better prepared to face them. Chile has no public policy to address the issue. There is no law on fighting wildfires or confronting other such emergencies. Prevention would involve actions ranging from regulating the activities of forest companies, to implementing effective firefighting, to avoiding the accumulation of garbage in places where fires may emerge. 

What we can do about it

  1. Institutional and forestry planning appropriate for a changing climate. Changes in weather patterns have made wildfires far more likely to occur. For this reason, adequate plans and policies must be developed to deal with such situations, which will continue to be an underlying threat. Planning should be geared towards building a forest landscape resilient to a drier and hotter future.
  2. Strengthening firefighting capacities. The budget afforded to CONAF and the firefighting companies must be sufficient to cover the necessary equipment and human capacity needed to effectively battle such blazes.
  3. Regulations to prevent and protect. Legal measures must be taken to ensure that reforestation incorporates firebreaks and ample buffer zones around sensitive areas (villages, water sources and productive areas, among others). This reduces the ability of wildfires to progress and protects local biodiversity and ecosystem services.
  4. Impose responsibilities. The owners of forest plantations must be responsible for setting up firewalls and other safeguards, as well as for having emergency plans.
  5. Stop promoting monocultures and reestablish native forest. Because they are harmful to the environment and propagate wildfires, the State must stop encouraging monocultures and instead encourage the cultivation of diverse and native forests.
  6. Plan reforestation after the fire. Local development must be ensured throughout the process of reforestation, involving affected communities and stakeholders.
  7. Education and training of residents and local authorities. Those who live and keep watch over high-risk areas should know how to respond in the case of an emergency, and they must know how to prevent it.

How YOU can help now

The platform “movidos x Chile” has information on how to help those affected by the fires (donations, volunteering, etc.).

The following organizations are receiving money to help victims:

There are also organizations focused on helping affected animals:

Also, on this page you can find information about all the organizations and institutions that are receiving donations for both victims and animals, including locations across the country where material support can be provided. 


About the Author

Florencia Ortúzar

Florencia O

Florencia Ortúzar works for AIDA from Santiago, Chile. She obtained her Law degree (2006) from the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and also completed an MSc in Environmental Politics and Regulation (2011) at the London School of Economics (LSE) in England. She joined our team in 2012 and has contributed to AIDA’s work on climate change issues. She enjoys spending time with her pets as well as cooking, camping and nature trekking.

Any opinions expressed in this blog are the authors’ own and may not be shared by the organization. AIDA includes them with full respect for the freedom of expression and plurality of our team of professionals.