‘Catastrophe’ in Argentina as wildfires burn farms and wildlife

After a scorching heatwave, Argentina suffers raging wildfires that burn a vast swath of land across its northern region.

A man works to extinguish the fire that continues to consume trees and pastures in Ituzaingo, province of Corrientes, Argentina.
A man works to extinguish a fire that consumed trees and pastures in Ituzaingo, a province of Corrientes, Argentina, on February 20 [Matias Baglietto/Reuters]

People in Argentina are hopeful light rains that began over the weekend will help firefighters curb blazing wildfires that have ravaged farms, pastures and wildlife in the country’s north in recent weeks.

Eight separate fires in Argentina’s Corrientes province have devastated almost 800,000 hectares (1.98 million acres), according to officials.

The choking smoke has made the day look like night while flames consumed about 30,000 hectares (74,130 acres) a day, destroying up to 9 percent of a region that is dependent on agriculture.

“This is atypical, historic. It’s never happened. We’ve never lived something like this,” local resident Jorge Ayala said. “We’re really overwhelmed. This is what I can tell you now. This is a blow for the province.”

Strong winds, low humidity and dryness from drought fuelled the fires beginning in mid-January. Forecasters said light rains that began falling on Sunday were expected to continue through the week, offering a prospect of relief to a region that has suffered extreme heat and drought. The mainly rural province of farms, ranches and forests that borders Paraguay normally sees abundant rain.

Luis Candia was among residents working with firefighters to put out the wildfires in Corrientes. With a water pack on his back and his face covered to protect him from the smoke and flames, he told the Reuters news service that the region was fighting for its future.

“The truth is that the province is experiencing a catastrophe with these fires,” Candia said, taking a break from trying to douse blazes that had burned farming regions and wetland areas rich with wildlife.

“There is a lot of loss of animals, the issue of flora and fauna. On top of that, this was our source of work. If we lose this, what will become of us tomorrow?” he said.

Firefighters, police and volunteers have been trying for weeks to put out the fires, which have taken hold amid drought linked to the La Niña climate phenomenon as temperatures have risen around the planet.

“Everything came together; the drought of a year and a half, the high temperatures, the lack of rain and the hydric stress that the plants already have, even the soil itself,” Josefina Piñeiro, a resident of Corrientes, told Reuters.

Images from the area show large swathes of fields burned, smouldering roots of trees, animals dead or fleeing the fire, and exhausted firefighters. Firefighting units have begun to arrive from all corners of Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia.

People work to extinguish the fire that continues to consume trees and pastures in San Luis del Palmar, province of Corrientes, Argentina.
Local people join with firefighters to try to extinguish a fire that consumed trees and pastures in San Luis del Palmar, Argentina [Matias Baglietto/Reuters]

Authorities estimate losses so far at more than 26 billion Argentine pesos (more than $240m), and experts say the province could need years to recover. Argentina has limited exports of beef this year because of the shortfalls of rain.

Artists and public figures are campaigning to raise funds for the victims, while donations of basic goods are pouring into the area.

People are bringing fruit, water and ice, said Laura Núñez, a volunteer helping to fight the blazes. “They bring it in a trailer; they are getting everything possible so that we can focus on the fire and try to help,” she said.

The light rainfall cheered the firefighters.

“It’s a blessing from God. I think God took pity on us,” said volunteer Estefanía Riveiro, who was carrying buckets of water to “help our animals”.

United States government scientists on January 13 reported that 2021 had been the sixth-warmest year on record.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies