Patagonia, the ultimate wilderness frontier at the end the world, was where summer used to be a blessing. The snow receded. Lakes were filled with fresh, crystal-clear snowmelt. The landscape was alive with color.
However, summer has become a reason for concern. Last March, La Comarca Andina was nearly destroyed by a series of fires. It is a fairy-tale forest located in the Patagonia Mountains of Argentina. The fires swept through 54,000 acres along the 42nd parallel in a matter of days. Three people died. Three hundred houses were set on fire.
Jesus Olmos recalled waking up to a horrible noise and the stench of smoke. He walked out to find the forest in flames. Nearby homes had gas tanks that exploded like bombs. A tongue of fire, whipped by wind, raced toward his home. He says that I ran as if running from the roaring of a dragon.
His only chance of survival was to flee. He opened the doors for his animals, and ran through a cloud of smoke that caused him to cough. His hands, neck, and face were covered in welts from burned flesh. He left behind his former life.
Such fires were once rare in this remote, sparsely populated area of southern South America. One Argentine scientist said that the fire of 2021 is a sign of things to come. Climate change and increased wildland population are the twin causes of fires across California, Australia and elsewhere.
Already climate-caused heat and drought are causing what scientists in Argentina call catastrophic change. This is causing more fragile ecosystems as well as more destructive fires. These fires are fueled by non-native pine forests that thrive in their ruins.
The new fire season is off to a quick start
Only a few weeks into the new fire season, the predictions have only been reinforced and the residents are more anxious about the summer season. In three of the five Patagonia provinces, Argentina, 15 fires of varying sizes have already erupted.
Many fires are raging out of control. Officials have warned that if the weather does not change, the fire may reach Villegas and Manso, causing the evacuation of more than 2,000 residents. Two crew members died in the flames after one of eight helicopters that were fighting the fires crashed. The Argentine government declared a condition of emergency last week. This is expected to last for a whole year.
This is a striking coincidence, says Thomas Kitzbergerm of Argentina’s National University of Comahue. He studies climate change and forest fires. It doesn’t surprise me.
Last winter, Patagonia saw its snow cover drop to the lowest level in 20 years. Many ski centers had to close, including La Hoya, Chubut. Cerro Catedral was the most important complex in the country and could only operate by artificially creating snow.
Kitzberger says that there are many indicators that northern Patagonia may be drying up and getting warmer. This combination is explosive. Water deficiency is a major factor in plant tissue flammability.
The 15,000 year old records of ash on Patagonian lakebeds are evidence that the glaciers receded and were replaced with magnificent forests. Fires used to be naturally started by lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions. According to the Argentine Ministry of the Environment 7 percent of fires in the Patagonian andean region are caused by nature, while 93 percent are caused by humankind.
Notably, the fire that erupted in the Comarca Andina forests last summer burned in the wildland–urban interface, which is the zone of transition between wilderness areas and land suitable for human activity. The region has been home to many newcomers, from hippies in 1960s to billionaires. These include Luciano Benetton, an Italian fashion designer and entrepreneur, and Joseph Lewis, a British magnate who acquired millions upon millions of acres Patagonian land.
El Bolsn is the nerve center of La Comarca Andina and has a population that is 3000 times larger than it was in 1991. Local accounts show that school officials have received so many requests recently to enroll new students at the 44 rural schools in the area, they have had no choice but to turn some away.
The main problem is that people are moving away from rural areas in pursuit of the dream of living close and natural. Guillermo Defoss teaches Forest Ecology at the University of Patagonia. He has spent more than 30 year studying the why and how of forest fires.
He also said that fire risks increase with increasing populations. People must be aware of the risks involved if they want to live in areas where nature is still intact. They must also know how to minimize, prevent, and mitigate the potential effects of fire in various situations.
Pine forests are more flammable
Despite climate change and population growth, scientists still wonder why the fire in La Comarca Andina burned so intensely despite the fact that Patagonia covers half a million square miles.
This forest, which is quite old, was planted in the 1970s on vastly abandoned grasslands. These grasslands were once used for grazing. The grass had replaced the older-growth forest in the late-19th and early-20th century, when Argentina’s wool business was at its peak. In the 1950s, wool was being replaced in large part by synthetic fibers made from petroleum.
In the 1970s, the Argentine government started a fully subsidized reforestation plan to encourage the wood industry in the region. Nobody knew much about ecology or climate change. A fast-growing species of tree species was the best choice for government officials, and that is how the pine forest came to Patagonia.
The faster-growing trees were more productive, but the result was a boom in business. Estela Raffaele (an ecologist and researcher at Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research) says that rapid reforestation took place without any control over tree placement or growth. The flammability of pine trees can be much higher than native forest, and this is affecting the frequency of fires within the region.
She adds that pine species, as we are learning, use fire to colonize land and take over the new land. Radiata pine concerns us most. Its cones, which are very hard, can only be opened at very high temperatures. If a pine forest catch fire, heat explodes the cones, releasing millions of seeds.
90 percent of radiata seeds germinate once the fire has subsided. The land fills with pine seedlings within a few months. Native species cannot compete for light and water.
Raffaele says that every fire reduces diversity dramatically, creating the conditions for new fires. We counted 400,000 pine seedlings within a single hectare a year after the fire in La Comarca Andina. It was an impressive invasion. As they grow, pine trees become self-thinning. Only the strongest survive. The ones that do not die are still standing and ready to be burned.
Scientists are working on mathematical models that will predict how rising temperatures affect forests. Preliminary results show that Patagonia faces a fiery future of environmental degradation unless there is a dramatic change. Kitzberger believes that Patagonia’s ecosystems are essential to maintaining a healthy forest environment. Climate change is also threatening the forests’ ability to retain water. Kitzberger cites forests of lenga, a leafless beech tree that is native to the southern Andes and grows at elevations over 3,000 feet, as a good example.
He says that climate change and fire are causing these forests to disappear. They are highly susceptible to heat, and they don’t grow back from the roots. This is a concern because they play an important role in water regulation.
He added: Rain without lenga forests will cause erosion and water to turn to mud. Rivers and lakes will not fill up. We are already seeing a decrease of water flow from reduced lake levels and a drop in hydroelectric generator.
A year later, the community fights back
Many people were taken by surprise when El Bolsn’s fire erupted a year ago. Gustavo Zaninelli was stunned when he saw the fire consume large pine trees in seconds. He had never been to fire before. He was finishing the finishing touches on two houses that he had spent two years building. His own house and his brother-in law’s were about 650 feet away.
He said that we stayed in our house until the heat forced them out. We watched as the work we had just completed burned. The wind was so strong, we could see pieces of wood flying hundreds of meters to light another fire. In a matter of seconds, huge pines were able to burn. The forest roared and became a color of red between sunset and blood.
Olmos doesn’t look like someone who has lost everything a year later. He believes that the fire gave him strength. His neighbors chose him to be their spokesperson and he traveled to Argentina’s capital, Buenos Aires to arrange assistance for his community. El Bolsn didn’t get much despite his promises.
He laughs and says that he doesn’t know if bureaucracy makes it worse than fire. In the end, we all help one another.
His community is forming a cooperative to sell regional goods. They call it “The Cooperation”. Cooperativa revolucionaria flor de fuegoRevolutionary flower of fire. To help children who don’t have a place to play, the first project is a children’s activity room. He says that donations are accepted.
Olmos returned to his land a month ago. He is still living in a precarious situation while he rebuilds a new house. Only two of his ten pigs survived the fire. One of the pigs became pregnant and gave birth soon after. He gave the piglets, which were in ruins at his farm, to neighbors who had lost their animals. This allowed them to start over. He believes that life is about being reborn from the ashes.
Guido Bilbao is an environmental journalist and documentary filmmaker.
Alejandro Chaskielberg, an Argentinean photographer, documents environmental and social problems using night photography. Follow him on Instagram.