POPHOTOGRAPHS BY ALEJANDRO CHASKIELBERG
PUBLISHED JANUARY 4, 2022
Two locals try to control a fire on the outskirts of the town of El Bolsón. The fire was unleashed on January 24, 2021 by a campfire. It lasted more than 45 days and burned thousands of hectares of forest.
Already, climate-caused conditions—drought and heat—are bringing about what scientists in Argentina term “catastrophic change,” resulting in more fragile ecosystems and more severe and damaging fires, fueled by non-native pine trees that thrive in their ruins.
The new fire season off to a fast start
The new fire season, which is just a few weeks old, has only reinforced the predictions—and heightened dread and worry over the summer season for the people who live there. So far, 15 fires of different sizes have erupted in three of the five Patagonia provinces in Argentina.
Several fires are burning out of control, and officials have warned that if weather conditions do not change, the fire could reach Villegas and Manso, forcing the evacuation of 2,000 residents. The fires have already claimed lives: one of eight helicopters fighting the fires crashed, killing two crew members. Last week, the Argentine government declared a state of emergency, which is expected to last for a year.
“The fact that this is happening so early in the summer season is very striking,” says Thomas Kitzbergerm, who studies forest fires and climate change at Argentina’s National University of Comahue. “…But it does not surprise me at all.”
Last winter, Patagonia had the lowest snow cover in 20 years; several ski centers, including La Hoya in Chubut, had to close and Cerro Catedral, the most important complex in the country, received so little snow it could operate only by creating it artificially.
“Many indicators suggest that northern Patagonia is both drying up and getting warmer,” says Kitzberger. “That combination is explosive. Plant tissues are deficient in water, and that’s a big factor in flammability.”
Records of ash on Patagonian lakebeds date back 15,000 years to when glaciers receded and were replaced by magnificent forests. Fires once occurred naturally, caused by lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions; they are now predominantly started by humans. According to the Argentine Ministry of the Environment, “in the Patagonian Andean region, 7 percent of fires are due to nature and 93 percent to humankind.”
Notably, last summer’s fire in the Comarca Andina forest burned in the wildland-urban interface, the zone of transition between wilderness and land developed for human activity. The region has long attracted newcomers, ranging from hippies in the 1960s to billionaires, including Italian fashion designer and entrepreneur Luciano Benetton and British magnate Joseph Lewis, who acquired millions of acres of Patagonian land in the 1990s.
The population of El Bolsón, the nerve center of La Comarca Andina, is 30,000—triple what it was in 1991. Recently, school officials have received so many requests to enroll new students in the area’s 44 rural schools, they have had to turn some away, according to local accounts.
“The main issue is that in pursuing the dream of living close to nature, people are moving to rural areas,” says Guillermo Defossé teaches forest ecology at the University of Patagonia and has spent more than 30 years studying the why and how of forest fires.
“As populations grow, the risk of fire increases,” he adds. “If people wish to live where nature is relatively untouched, they must first know the risks involved. They should also know all the ways to prevent, minimize, and mitigate the effects of fire in the various circumstances in which it may occur.”
Pine forests are more flammable
Despite the population growth and climate change, scientists were still left to wonder why, in the half million square miles of Patagonia, did the fire burn so fiercely in La Comarca Andina?
This seemingly ancient forest—unlike others in Patagonia—is mainly northern pine, planted in the 1970s on what were largely abandoned grasslands once used for grazing. The grass had replaced the old-growth forest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the wool industry was at its peak and sheep farming was big business in Argentina. By the 1950s, however, wool was being replaced by synthetic fibers derived from petroleum, and sheep farming was in steep decline.