Article | Chile: Wildfire Season 2023

By: Francisca Yunis Richter

Published on March 2o, 2023

The 2022-2023 fire season has been one of the most devastating in Chilean history, affecting more than 458.000 hectares.

After the great fire in Viña del Mar at the end of 2022, the following months were devastating, where February began with wildfires that spread for 3 weeks through the Ñuble, BioBío, and Araucanía regions, initially destroying more than 300.000 hectares, which evidenced a critical increase in the number of fires. The National Forest Corporation (CONAF) records indicate that the hectares consumed during the 2022-2023 fire season have increased 7 times more, compared to the annual average of the seasons of the last 5 years (CONAF, 2023).

According to the National Service for Disaster Prevention and Response (SENAPRED) of the Ministry of the Interior and Public Security, 255 wildfires were registered throughout the country, of which 182 are under control and 25 are still in combat. The balance has remained at 26 deaths, 7.770 affected, and 2.450 destroyed homes (SENAPRED, 2023).

Over the last fifty years, maximum summer temperatures have increased steadily at a rate of 0.43ºC per decade—a rate much greater than the average temperature change for the planet—as a result of increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and anthropogenic global warming. It should be noted that all events with maximum temperatures above 40 °C have occurred in the last decade (Center for Climate and Resilience Science, 2023). Extreme weather conditions can be a crucial factor for the spread of fire, where rising temperatures cause a considerable drop in relative humidity. Likewise, wind gusts are a determining variable for the development of wildfires, as are the movements of the masses of smoke and air pollution. The consequences of the fires were also reflected in the air quality of the affected areas, where the fires became sources of emission of pollutants and particulate matter, which were displaced by the wind to different communes. According to data from the National Air Quality Information System (SINCA), air pollution was quite critical, directly affecting the daily life of the population in sectors surrounding the fires, where it was essential to take measures to prevent the inhalation of smoke.

Source: The daily situation of wildfires: National summary of relevant active fires and accumulated statistics to date (CONAF, 2023)
Source: NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin and Allison Nussbaum, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey and MODIS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE and GIBS/Worldview. Story by Emily Cassidy with input from René Garreaud, University of Chile (2023).
Source: Maximum temperature values recorded in central-southern Chile between February 1 and 5, 2023. Elaboration based on records from various institutions accessible at vismet.cr2.cl.
Source: Photograph by Javier Torres, wildfire in Santa Juana, Concepción
Source: Wildfire in Patagual, from the commune of Chiguayante, Concepción. Photographed by Francisca Yunis.

The urban-rural interface is the area where human settlements meet the forest, and it is a fundamental area for reducing the risk of wildfires. According to the Report “Fires in Chile: causes, impacts and resilience” from the Center for Climate Science and Resilience, this area covers 5% of the national territory, however, it manages to concentrate about 80% of the population (González et al., 2020).

The causes of wildfires in Chile are mainly due to human activities, whether accidental, deliberate, or intentional, where their occurrence is directly linked to the distance and location of urban centers and infrastructure, where the urban-rural interface zones increase the risk of fires. According to the statistics reported by CONAF, the causes of intentional fires at the national level are arson attacks due to vandalism (10%), pyromania (8%), indigenous conflicts (6%), and other unclassified causes (70 %). It is important to note that also according to CONAF statistics, in the Valparaíso and Metropolitan regions, the cause associated with arsonists predominates; in the Araucanía region, those related to arson attacks and vandalism; and in the Biobío, which has the highest occurrence of intentional fires, 83% is associated with an unclassified intentional cause” (González et al, 2020).

Source: Urban-Rural Interface Zone (IUR in Spanish) identified in Chile (González et al, 2020)
Source: Causes of wildfires between the regions of Valparaíso and Araucanía between 1985 and 2018 (González et al, 2020)

References

Corporación Nacional Forestal (CONAF) Situación diaria de incendios forestales: Resumen nacional de incendios activos y estadísticas acumuladas a la fecha – SIDCO. Available at: https://www.conaf.cl/situacion-nacional-de-incendios-forestales/ (Accessed 06/03/23) .

Centro de Ciencia del Clima y la Resiliencia (2023). Análisis (CR)2 | Meteorología extrema: uno de los factores tras los incendios de febrero 2023 en el centro-sur de Chile. Available at: https://www.cr2.cl/analisis-cr2-meteorologia-extrema-uno-de-los-factores-tras-los-incendios-de-febrero-2023-en-el-centro-sur-de-chile/ (Accessed 02/03/23) .

González, M.E., Sapiains, R., Gómez-González, S., Garreaud, R., Miranda, A., Galleguillos, M., Jacques, M., Pauchard, A., Hoyos, J., Cordero, L., Vásquez, F., Lara, A., Aldunce, P., Delgado, V., Arriagada, Ugarte, A.M., Sepúlveda, A., Farías, L., García, R., Rondanelli, R.,J., Ponce, R.,Vargas, F., Rojas, M., Boisier, J.P., C., Carrasco, Little, C., Osses, M., Zamorano, C., Díaz-Hormazábal, I., Ceballos, A., Guerra, E., Moncada, M., Castillo, I . (2020). Incendios forestales en Chile: causas, impactos y resiliencia. Centro de Ciencia del Clima y la Resiliencia (CR)2, (ANID/FONDAP/15110009), 84 pp. Available at: https://www.cr2.cl/incendios/ (Accessed 06/03/23) .

Servicio Nacional de Prevención y Respuesta ante Desastres, SENAPRED (2023). Available at: https://senapred.cl/noticias/nuevo-balance-de-incendios-forestales/ (Accessed 10/03/23) .

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