Megafires and the forestry industry in Chile

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By Rodrigo Barria
Editor's note: The following is from Issue 27.
In just a few years, south-central Chile has become the center of increasingly extensive and destructive megafires. With serious environmental consequences, research warns that their effects are more severe than those of a major earthquake. How has the forestry industry contributed to this new and flammable scenario?
For decades, severe and extensive forest fires have affected the central-southern zone of Chile with force and destruction. The fires have left not only deaths and serious environmental impacts in their wake, but severe social and economic consequences.
Increasing in their intensity, magnitude, and destruction, forest fires not only reflect the effects of the climate crisis, but warn of other issues, such as urban expansion and land use changes.
But now, in the past few years, we have gone from seeing fires of varying scale and magnitude to a much more terrifying category: megafires. These are powerful massive fires that are extreme in their size and impact. And they are no longer rare but have become dangerously recurrent.
For example, in 2017, the fires in Chile were the worst on record, affecting more than 500,000 hectares, with the cost to extinguish them at $US 350 million. To get an idea of the power of these fires, according to studies by the Center for Climate Science and Resilience (CR)2, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from the fires was nearly 100 million tons, equivalent to 90 percent of the total national CO2 emissions during the entire, previous year. To graph it another way: it was as if 23 years of emissions from all light passenger vehicles in Chile’s capital, Santiago, which is home to about one-third of the country’s 20 million people, were put together.
Six years later, the megafires of the 2023 season overtook 400,000 hectares, at a cost of just over $300 million to the State and claimed 24 fatalities.
What is happening that is causing these destructive fires to repeat with greater frequency?
Trees as fuel
Official statistics show that 89 percent of the area affected by forest fires in Chile occur between the Valparaíso region in the central part of the country and the La Araucanía region in the south. Although most fires are small in size, fires larger than 200 hectares account for only 1 percent of the total but represent 74 percent of the total area burned per year.
Moreover, the new megafires, which used to happen almost exclusively during the summer, have extended their season and now happen from mid-October to the end of May. In other words, in just the span of one decade, the season for large fires has increased by almost two months in central-southern Chile.
According to land use type, half of the area affected by large fires between 1985 and 2018 was covered by exotic species tree plantations utilizing pine and eucalyptus. Native forest accounted for 20 percent. As such, it’s clear that the expansion and occurrence of megafires in Chile have a direct link to these large swaths of forest plantations. Exotic species tree farms accumulate more fuel, low humidity, and higher volatile compounds. This, together with drought and lower humidity levels, provides a highly critical and favorable scenario for the occurrence of forest fires.
"Forestry development has undoubtedly been one of the factors that has led to a substantial change in the fire regime with respect to the increase in the area burned and the magnitude of today's large fires. This has generated serious ecological, social, and economic impacts, CO2 emissions that favor global warming, and especially affected the quality of life of people in adjacent areas,” said Antonio Lara, a professor of forest sciences and natural resources at the Universidad Austral de Chile for more than 30 years and one of the lead researchers for Center for Climate and Resilience Research. Adds Lara: “The rapid expansion of monoculture tree plantations, concentrated in pine and eucalyptus, these are highly flammable exotic species that are planted in continuous areas generating homogeneous landscapes.”
The modern forestry industry in Chile expanded quickly after the Decree Law 701 of 1974, but its presence in Chile is much older and dates to the 1950s. The arrival of the timber industry was not only established for economic reasons but was promoted as an alternative to the soil erosion that large areas had suffered since the 1800s because of the production of wheat and other cereals. In other words, agricultural use has also played an important role in the change in the landscape experienced by large geographical areas of Chile.
The problem is that the high profitability of the forestry industry in areas not affected by erosion became increasingly occupied by the timber industry. Over the past four decades, the landscape of central-southern Chile have been taken over by exotic species, and many of these areas are also conservation priorities due to their high levels of biodiversity and endemic species.
"Today there are some 3 million hectares of pine and eucalyptus plantations. The problem is that studies indicate that these species are highly flammable and prone to fire. This has to do with their essential oils, dry bark, and the branches they generate. Added to this is the homogeneity of the plantations, which means that there isn’t a landscape design that respects different land uses. This constant, homogeneous structure of pines and eucalyptus trees causes fires to spread fast. It is enough to see that a few months ago we had a megafire that covered more than 100,000 hectares,” says Nicolás Salazar, director of the documentary "Llamas del Despojo: Incendios del Negocio Forestal" (Flames of Dispossession: Fires of the Forestry Business).
Aníbal Pauchard, a forestry professor at the Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity (IEB) of the University of Concepción, also takes a critical view of the impact of new species on the landscape of central-southern Chile: "The plantations of fast-growing introduced species have advanced over the last 50 years throughout central-southern Chile. In many cases, they have replaced scrub and grasslands and even some agricultural areas and native forests. These planted forests are very homogeneous and have a high fuel load with species with evolutionary characteristics associated with forest fires, i.e., they have evolved in environments where fire is natural and therefore reproduce with fire and can have foliage with high flammability. Unfortunately, the issue of fire and climate change was not considered when these plantations were implemented, allowing entire watersheds to be transformed into forest plantations and therefore leaving the territory more vulnerable to catastrophic fires.”
The costs of fire
There is agreement that the costs associated with mega-fires – some estimates place them at between US$ 1,500 and US$ 4,800 per hectare burned – are significantly underestimated because they do not include the impacts on flora, fauna, soils, and communities.
Indeed, studies show that fires produce various psychological and community impacts that can be, in the case of Chile, more severe than those of a major earthquake. These impacts are associated with the death of family members or acquaintances, material damage that in many cases is complete, the temporary disarticulation of families and community networks, loss of jobs, forced displacement, destruction of common spaces, the multiplicity of social conflicts that are generated or enhanced during or after the fire, and the fact that the responses from different sectors - at least in the cases studied - tend to be disjointed and insufficient given the characteristics of this type of disaster.
Of course, the State has had to face the emergency. During the 2017 fire season, the costs incurred by the State amounted to just over US$362 million, equivalent to about US$635 per hectare. This year, Conaf increased its investment into firefighting capabilities, spending nearly $US 175 million to add more planes to its now 63-plane fleet. But none of the public investment so far has been earmarked for related impacts on tourism, people's health, biodiversity losses, and other areas.

“When you have all these large landscapes with monoculture plantations, it just takes getting some fire in there with the wind behind it and there’s nothing to stop it.”

Regarding private sector spending to deal with megafires, this has also increased. According to the Chilean forest industry assosciation (CORMA), during the 2017-2018 fire season timber companies were forced to increase their budgets to almost US$80 million, 60 percent more than at the beginning of the 2016 season.
Although many question whether there is enough public and private investment to address megafires, others say the real issue that must be addressed is the much broader one: rethinking the forestry model that exists today in Chile.
“Education, prevention and organizing communities to confront fires, as well as reinforcing the investigation and punishment of those who cause fires, are also of great importance. These actions require a stronger State that develops and implements robust and coherent territorial policies, and that Chile's two large forestry companies profoundly modify their practices,” says Lara.
And Salazar warns: "We have taken several actions to combat megafires, but what is needed are prevention strategies and landscape management policies. We cannot continue to allow large extensions of monoculture plantations.”
“You got to have diversity. When you have all these large landscapes with monoculture plantations, it just takes getting some fire in there with the wind behind it and there’s nothing to stop it,” agrees Tracy Katelman, director of ForEverGreen forestry, an environmental consultancy from California which in 2014 helped Conaf set up its Community Prepared for Wildfire Project.
“We can’t fight our way out of this. Even California, with the best resources, literally millions of millions of dollars, it’s not something we can fight and win,” says Katelman. She said that educating communities is key, especially in communities bordering rural areas with tree plantations, such as giving them the tools and know-how to retrofit homes and redesign the landscape with fuelbreaks to remove combustible materials or flammable conditions.
Lara is optimistic, however. With the passage of Chile’s Climate Change Law last year, the shift from tree plantations to more native forests and a more heterogenous landscape is already underway. The law takes aim at reducing the area affected by fires by restoring 1 million hectares of land with native forest.
Says Lara: “The impetus that the current government is giving to the implementation of the Framework Law on Climate Change, which states that ‘monoculture tree plantations will not be encouraged,’ and to greater resources given to small landowners for the restoration of native forests, as well as initiatives by some forestry companies, are key to the transformation of landscapes dominated by extensive plantations. This transformation implies the replacement of part of the plantations in such a way as to move toward heterogeneous landscapes, with less combustibility, less occurrence of fires and more resilience."
In a recent interview with Patagon Journal, Conaf executive director Christian Little concurs that the root cause that that must be addressed is the need to construct "resilient landscapes that are not susceptible to these types of events.” He said Conaf is right now backing some large-scale projects to convert plantations to native forests, as well as smaller scale projects to sustainably manage native forests, such as the  “+ Bosques” project financed by the UN Green Climate Fund.
While Little said that 99 percent of fires in Chile are caused by people, he said it’s clear that the homogenous pine and eucalyptus plantations fan the flames. "Evidently, when there are landscapes that have a continuity of plantations, there are hundreds and thousands of hectares of a landscape that is much more prone to catastrophic fires.”
Adds Little: “The only way to have strong measures on climate change adaptation issues is to reconvert landscapes, make them more resilient, and that means providing greater heterogeneity and greater complexity, not only to the landscape, but also to the people who have a vision beyond the forest, beyond the plantations, an ecosystemic vision, something more complex.”

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