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  • Lilu Trondowski

Wildfires in Chile: Further Evidence of the Climate Crisis at Hand

Courtesy of Pierre Markuse


A recent uproar of wildfires has spread across regions in Chile, leaving the country and its citizens in a state of devastation. 


First identified on February 2, the fires have persisted across several cities and have caused over 131 casualties, more than 300 missing persons, and the displacement of over 1,600 individuals. As of February 22nd, the following areas were under red alert for forest fires: the Valparaíso Region, La Araucanía Region, and Los Lagos Region. As of February 5, 161 fires remain active, of which 102 are controlled while the other forty persist untamed. Over 20,000 acres of land has been burned and more remains at risk.


The fires have been rapidly spreading, leaving many Chileans with little time to respond to what has been deemed a natural disaster and the most lethal set of forest fires in the country's history. 


Chileans in the affected areas have reported feeling insufficiently warned by government officials of the fires. Evacuation instructions were issued, but these messages were delayed, did not mandate evacuations, and were not universally received due to power outages. One woman, Regina Figueroa, 53, explained how the fire had arrived at her doorstep at the same time that the warnings were being sent out. Like many others, several of Figueroa’s family members were “calcified in the street because they couldn’t escape the flames,” and she shared about her experience fleeing with her grandson: “I couldn't believe we were alive. But we were the lucky ones.” 


Described as “entering hell,” the fires left suffocating clouds of dark smoke, rubble strewn throughout the streets, and blackened swaths of land. People have begun attempting to clean their homes, take account of their missing possessions, and process their losses as a community. 


These events in Chile follow similar wildfires which occurred at the end of January in Colombia. These were declared a national disaster by the country’s president, and were forecasted to spread past the Andes Mountain region and move along the pacific coast. It has been speculated that this surge of wildfires in South America is the result of factors such as climate change, El Niño, and intentional and accidental human activity. 


According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, El Niño is a “climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean that can affect weather worldwide.” Sea conditions are heavily influenced by trade winds. These winds are caused by the Coriolis Effect, in which Earth’s rotation steers air towards the equator in different directions depending on the hemisphere. The air is forced upwards and then back down, resulting in a cycle of intense or little precipitation and affected water temperatures. Resultantly, some places have experienced higher temperatures and more intense drought which: Honda, Colombia, saw temperatures of 111 degrees in January 2024, leading to an unusual amount of forest fires with an end far out of reach. Other affected countries include Venezuela and Ecuador, where fires have also erupted. Landscape and terrain continues to shift, with usually damp areas drying out and providing the ideal breeding ground for fire. 


El Niño disrupts the sea’s regular conditions by weakening trade winds, leading to warmer water on the western coast of the Americas, dryness in some areas, intense wetness in others, and a shift in marine life. 


El Niño often re-emerges every few years around the month of December, but the disruption is not bound by a strict schedule. Although it is clear that El Niño shifts weather patterns on its own, its effects are inarguably exacerbated by climate change. The combination of El Niño and climate change generates more unpredictability about each wave of El Niño, and it is clear that as climate change increases, so will the effects of El Niño.


To bring awareness to the Colombian wildfires, the hashtag “El Niño no es un juego,” or “El Niño is not a game,” grew in popularity and the government allocated money to take steps in response to these disasters. Efforts to prepare and protect Columbian communities from El Niño related repercussions has included the widespread availability of vaccines through the Expanded Immunization Program to combat increased rates of respiratory and water related diseases. Warnings have been issued about UV exposure, heat stroke, Vector-borne diseases, and forest fire risk, all with the goal of minimizing the inevitable impact of El Niño, which is projected to continue until April, 2024


In 2022, it was determined that the rate of damage incurred by fires increases by approximately 4%, 568,000 acres, each year. The situation has been coined a climate feedback loop.” As temperatures rise, land becomes drastically drier, offering prime conditions for forest fires. During these fires, CO2 is released and trees are destroyed, one of the key combatants against greenhouse gasses and global warming. As the fires continue in Chile, research not only suggests that the climate issue at hand is far from avoidable, but that measures should be taken on an international level to avert these crises and combat the impending threat of climate change on the well being of our global society as well. 


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