Fifteen thousand hectares of native forest and steppe have gone up in smoke since forest fires started raging last week in the Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia, one of Chile’s most important protected areas.
The 180,000-hectare park was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1978 for its remarkable beauty, with peaks, cliffs, glaciers, waterfalls, rivers, lakes and lagoons adorning the scenery. It is home to some of the world’s most unique ecosystems, such as Pre-Andean scrublands, the deciduous Magellan Forest, Patagonian Steppes, and Andean desert. Of these, the wildfires have affected 4% of the deciduous Magellan Forest, 30% of the Pre-Andean scrublands and 65% of the Patagonian Steppe, according to Eduardo Katz, manager of Protected Areas of Chile’s National Forest Corporation, in an interview with BBC World.
This year’s fires exceed the destruction of the one that raged in February 2005, when 14,000 hectares burned, and an earlier one on February 1985, which destroyed a similar area. In 1970 and 1990 two smaller fires affected around 500 hectares each.
The effects of the fire will be most strongly felt by the region’s wildlife. In studying the 2005 fire, researchers Paula Contreras and Soledad Irrazábal found that the changes to vegetation wrought by the fire led to changes in the distribution and behaviour of animals such as the cougar.
Of particular concern is the huemul. This endangered deer — it is thought that just 2,000 individuals remain — is present only in the extreme south of the Andes, and is part of Chile’s national emblem. For 40 years Chilean governments have worked on the huemuls’ recovery, “and we have been quite successful,” said Katz.
Other species are at less risk. Guanacos and rheas, for example, “have been able to escape quickly and we have no evidence that they have been affected” by these new fires, Katz said.
Scientists are not sure how long it will take the park to recover. “It is not clear what the resilience of these forests to fire is. Reconstruction studies of vegetation, however, show a slow recovery of the forest, from decades to centuries,” says Rodrigo Villa, a palaeoecologist from the Center of Quaternary Studies of the Fuego Patagonia and Antarctica, in Punta Arenas.
And some are concerned that the recovery will be rushed. After being closed to the public for five days, the park partially reopened on Wednesday once the main nucleus of the fire was under control. This is in line with the government’s priority to revive tourism in the area.
Irrazábal and Contreras warn that “it is essential that the main objective — the conservation of the park — must not be compromised or obscured by the economic opportunities the country pursues”.
Image: Torres del Paine National Park, via wikimedia commons.