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El Salvador declares rare ‘red alert’ amid surge in forest fires

  • In the first two months of the year, there were more than 20 forest fires in protected areas and buffer zones across El Salvador, often in places that are not usually threatened.
  • Drought attributed to climate change, as well as irresponsible agricultural practices like slash and burn, are worsening the rate of fires in the small Central American country.
  • Conservationists have called on the government to improve its firefighting budget and dedicate more resources to educating farmers about fire risks.

Fires in El Salvador are spreading farther and lasting longer than in previous years, threatening protected areas and reforestation efforts throughout the country.

As it enters the peak of its dry season, El Salvador is seeing the rate of fires, many of them brush and forest fires, almost triple from the previous year, according to national agencies. At the end of February, a rare “red alert” was announced in response to excessive heat, winds of more than 50 kilometers per hour (31 miles per hour), and lack of precipitation.

“A red alert for fires is not very common here. We’ve perhaps reached an orange alert [previously]. But not red,” said José Maria Argueta, program director for the Mangrove Association, a local NGO. “This year, there are too many fires. There are more trained personnel but the fires have multiplied, so the country just wasn’t prepared for this.”

A total of 2,958 hectares (7,309 acres) of land burned in January and February, according to the Ministry of Government. Other sources give an even higher number. The fires have not been limited to one area but are instead being felt across the country — sometimes in places that are not usually threatened.

At the end of February, more than 100 personnel from several government agencies were needed to put out a fire in Chilanguera Natural Protected Area, outside of the city of San Miguel.

Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 20, there were 21 forest fires recorded in protected areas or the buffer zones designed to insulate them, according to the country’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN).

“The rangers and all the entities that have been dealing with these incidents are working 24 hours a day,” Minister Fernando López said in a February statement. “We recognize all of their efforts.”

Probable causes

Many fires are the result of subsistence activities like hunting, which often involves setting fire to dry brush to drive out animals, as well as slash-and-burn agriculture. Farmers clear forests and burn vegetation to improve soil fertility, but can easily lose control of the flames when there are high winds.

“Everything is dry,” Argueta said. “The undergrowth is dry. Some people are preparing the land to plant sugar cane or other crops. They do their burning and that burning sometimes isn’t controlled. And with the breeze, it moves to the protected areas.”

One purpose of the red alert is to prohibit residents from burning in those conditions, or at least to make them think twice about the precautions they have taken before clearing the land.

El Salvador devotes approximately 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) of land to agricultural activity, a little more than half of its total surface area, according to the U.N’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). By comparison, forests make up only 588,380 hectares (1.45 million acres).

A helicopter dumps water over a fire in El Salvador. Photo courtesy of MARN.

This disparity in land use is partly a result of the country’s decision to rely on agriculture during a period of economic recovery following the civil war that lasted throughout the 1980s and into the early 1990s.

But like other countries in Central America, El Salvador has also suffered from the expanding “dry corridor,” a stretch of the region that over the past two decades has experienced increasing extreme weather events tied to climate change. Drought has been one of the most persistent, with most of inland El Salvador feeling the effects, according to the FAO.

For some conservationists today, the concern isn’t just the destruction of reserves and protected areas but also areas that are undergoing restoration of degraded soils and forests, sometimes representing decades of work lost in a matter of days.

“Many of the forests that are emerging, and that are supporting biodiversity, are a product of the post-war recovery,” Francisco Álvarez, of Fundación Naturaleza El Salvador, told Mongabay. He said these forests are often private land that some organizations are trying to restore and protect together with local communities.

When those areas burn, Álvarez explained, in some areas in the country, forest owners are less likely to protect the forest that remains, instead taking advantage of the burned land by planting new crops.

Government actions

While some local governments have established firefighting programs and alert systems for farmers planning to slash and burn, many of them lack the funding and resources to train personnel or adequately communicate with residents.

As a result, most of the work to stop the spread of forest fires currently falls on national agencies. But even these are plagued by funding shortages.

Last year, President Nayib Bukele announced that firefighters would receive a $200 monthly bonus in addition to improving station infrastructure and providing them additional supplies. Some conservationists question whether these improvements are keeping pace with this year’s spike in fires.

Firefighting protocols also need to be revised, many residents and conservationists say. Personnel often fail to reach fires on time and to take the appropriate steps to prevent them from spreading, such as creating fire breaks.

MARN and the Firefighters of El Salvador didn’t reply to a request for comment for this article.

Fires in El Salvador are spreading farther and lasting longer than in previous years. Photo courtesy of MARN.

“There needs to be a greater responsibility on the part of people who live in rural areas but also a greater responsibility on the part of the authorities,” said David Marroquin, a member of the Climate Change and Environmental Management Board. He added, “There needs to be a more immediate response … They need to be able to get to the fires quickly.”

One problematic regulation involves issuing an alert to local farmers when winds are blowing at 40 kph (25 mph), but not if they’re blowing at 39 kph (24 mph), despite the conditions being virtually the same.

“It seems almost laughable, doesn’t it?” Marroquin said. “Those are really the regulations being promoted by government institutions. From our perspective, they need to be taking a more serious approach.”

Banner image: A tree surrounded by smoke in El Salvador. Photo courtesy of MARN

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