An imported tree fuels Patagonia’s terrifying summer fires

Pine trees and climate change transform the region’s fire patterns, pushing some to run ‘as if from the roar of a dragon.’

By Guido Bilbao
photographs by Alejandro Chaskielberg
Published 5 Jan 2022, 08:40 GMT
burned-native-vegetation
An area of native vegetation was burned to ashes by a campfire in January 2021 on the outskirts of El Bolsón, Argentina.
Photograph by Alejandro Chaskielberg

In Patagonia, that ultimate wild frontier at the end of the world, the arrival of summer used to come as a blessing. Snow receded. Lakes filled with fresh, clear snowmelt. The landscape came alive with colour.

Recently, though, summer has become a cause for fear. A series of fires last March nearly devoured La Comarca Andina, a fairy-tale forest in the Patagonia Mountains of Argentina. Along the 42nd parallel, the fires burned through more than 54,000 acres in just a few days. Three people died. Three hundred houses burned.

Two locals try to control a fire on the outskirts of the town of El Bolsón. The fire was unleashed on January 24, 2021 by a campfire. It lasted more than 45 days and burned thousands of hectares of forest.

Jesus Olmos remembers awakening to a horrific noise and the smell of smoke. He walked outside to find the surrounding forest an inferno. Gas tanks at nearby homes exploded like bombs, and a tongue of flame, whipped by the wind, was racing toward his home. “I ran as if from the roar of a dragon,” he says.

His only chance to get out alive was to flee immediately. He opened the gates for his animals and ran through clouds of smoke that caused fits of coughing. With welts of burned flesh forming on his hands, face, and neck, left his previous life behind.

Fires like that were once considered rare in this sparsely populated, remote region in southern South America. But in the words of one Argentine scientist, the fire of 2021 serves as a “premonition” of what’s to come as climate change and increased population in wildlands—the twin causes of fires in California, Australia, and elsewhere—also now closes in on the great expanse of mountains, rivers, and forests shared by both Chile and Argentina.

The remains of a house burned during the voracious fire of March 9, 2021, at the north entrance to the town of El Hoyo, in Chubut, Argentina.
Gustavo Zaninelli stands in the remains of a burned house that he completed just two weeks before it was burned down. He is illuminated with a red lantern next to the brick fireplace, the only element that survived the fire.
Francisco with his Aunt Olga in front of a small campfire in El Hoyo. They are taking care of their family’s land, which was burned on March 9, 2021.

Already, climate-caused conditions—drought and heat—are bringing about what scientists in Argentina term “catastrophic change,” resulting in more fragile ecosystems and more severe and damaging fires, fuelled by non-native pine trees that thrive in their ruins.

The new fire season off to a fast start 

The new fire season, which is just a few weeks old, has only reinforced the predictions—and heightened dread and worry over the summer season for the people who live there. So far, 15 fires of different sizes have erupted in three of the five Patagonia provinces in Argentina.

Several fires are burning out of control, and officials have warned that if weather conditions do not change, the fire could reach Villegas and Manso, forcing the evacuation of 2,000 residents. The fires have already claimed lives: one of eight helicopters fighting the fires crashed, killing two crew members. Last week, the Argentine government declared a state of emergency, which is expected to last for a year.

“The fact that this is happening so early in the summer season is very striking,” says Thomas Kitzbergerm, who studies forest fires and climate change at Argentina’s National University of Comahue. “...But it does not surprise me at all.”

The Puerto Patriada area, burned in the summer of 2015, is invaded with Pino Radiata pine trees, which are adapted to fire and burns easily.

Last winter, Patagonia had the lowest snow cover in 20 years; several ski centres, including La Hoya in Chubut, had to close and Cerro Catedral, the most important complex in the country, received so little snow it could operate only by creating it artificially.

“Many indicators suggest that northern Patagonia is both drying up and getting warmer,” says Kitzberger. “That combination is explosive. Plant tissues are deficient in water, and that's a big factor in flammability."

Records of ash on Patagonian lakebeds date back 15,000 years to when glaciers receded and were replaced by magnificent forests. Fires once occurred naturally, caused by lightning strikes or volcanic eruptions; they are now predominantly started by humans. According to the Argentine Ministry of the Environment, “in the Patagonian Andean region, 7 percent of fires are due to nature and 93 percent to humankind.”

Mariano Olmos next to the remains of his burned house in the Parcela 26 neighborhood, in Lago Puelo, Argentina. He escaped the fire by running; he saved his little dog inside his jacket.

Notably, last summer’s fire in the Comarca Andina forest burned in the wildland-urban interface, the zone of transition between wilderness and land developed for human activity. The region has long attracted newcomers, ranging from hippies in the 1960s to billionaires, including Italian fashion designer and entrepreneur Luciano Benetton and British magnate Joseph Lewis, who acquired millions of acres of Patagonian land in the 1990s.

The population of El Bolsón, the nerve centre of La Comarca Andina, is 30,000—triple what it was in 1991. Recently, school officials have received so many requests to enrol new students in the area’s 44 rural schools, they have had to turn some away, according to local accounts.

“The main issue is that in pursuing the dream of living close to nature, people are moving to rural areas,” says Guillermo Defossé teaches forest ecology at the University of Patagonia and has spent more than 30 years studying the why and how of forest fires.

“As populations grow, the risk of fire increases,” he adds. “If people wish to live where nature is relatively untouched, they must first know the risks involved. They should also know all the ways to prevent, minimise, and mitigate the effects of fire in the various circumstances in which it may occur."

Pine forests are more flammable

Despite the population growth and climate change, scientists were still left to wonder why, in the half million square miles of Patagonia, did the fire burn so fiercely in La Comarca Andina?

This seemingly ancient forest—unlike others in Patagonia—is mainly northern pine, planted in the 1970s on what were largely abandoned grasslands once used for grazing. The grass had replaced the old-growth forest in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when the wool industry was at its peak and sheep farming was big business in Argentina. By the 1950s, however, wool was being replaced by synthetic fibres derived from petroleum, and sheep farming was in steep decline.

In the 1970s, the Argentine government launched a fully subsidised reforestation program to promote timber industry in the region. No one knew much about ecology, the environment or climate change. Government officials thought a fast-growing tree species would be best, and that is how pine forest came to Patagonia.

One of the five burned houses of the Alvarez family, on the outskirts of El Hoyo.
A worker places the sheets for the roof of a reconstructed house, which was a former pine plantation burned to the ground during the fire of March 9, 2021, in Lago Puelo, Argentina.
Roberto Vargas clears a piece of land in Lago Puelo burned by the wildfire.

Although the faster-growing trees produced poorer timber, business boomed. Reforestation was done quickly, with no control over tree growth or placement, says Estela Raffaele, an ecologist and researcher at Argentina’s National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET). “The flammability of pine trees is much higher than that of native forest and the invasion of these conifers is affecting the frequency of fires in the region.”

Additionally, she adds: “Pine species, we're learning now, use fire to colonise and take over new land. Radiata pine concerns us most. Its cones are very hard and open only at high temperatures. When a pine forest catches fire, heat bursts these cones, expelling millions of seeds, all fire resistant.”

Once a fire subsides, 90 percent of radiata seeds germinate. A few months later, the land begins to fill with pine seedlings. Native species can't compete for water or light.

“Every fire cuts diversity down dramatically, generating the conditions for new fires,” Raffaele adds. “A year after the fire in La Comarca Andina, we counted 400,000 pine seedlings in a single hectare, an impressive invasion. Pine trees, as they grow, are self-thinning; the strongest survive. Those that die remain standing, ready to burn.”

A portable sawmill was set up in the Parcela 26 neighborhood of Lago Puelo, Chubut so locals could saw the burned pine trees and use them to rebuild houses.

Scientists are developing mathematical models to project how forests will be affected by rising temperatures. Preliminary results suggest that unless there is a drastic change, Patagonia faces a fiery future filled with environmental degradation. Kitzberger says that some ecosystems in Patagonia are fundamental to the general balance of forests, and climate change is threatening the ability of forests to retain water. He says forests of lenga, a leaf-shedding beech tree native to the southern Andes that grows at altitudes above 3,000 feet, are a good example.

“We're seeing that these forests will disappear first because of climate change and fire,” he explains. “They are very susceptible to heat and don't grow back through their roots. It worries us a lot because they fulfil important functions in water regulation.”

He adds: “Without lenga forests, rain will cause erosion and turn water to mud. Rivers and lakes won't fill up. In fact, we're already noting a decrease in water flow due to reduced lake levels, along with a drop in hydroelectric generation.”

A year later, a community fights back

When the fire in El Bolsón broke out a year ago, it caught many residents by surprise. Gustavo Zaninelli watched the fire consume huge pine trees in what seemed like seconds, astonished. He had never experienced fire before and was putting the finishing touches on two houses he spent two years building—his own and his brother-in-law's, 650 feet apart.

“We stayed in the house until heat drove us out,” he says. “We watched from a distance as the work we had just finished burned. The wind was so strong that we could see burning pieces of wood fly hundreds of meters to spark another fire. Huge pines, burned in a few seconds. The forest roared and turned a color of red between blood and sunset.”

A raspberry plantation was completely burned in the area of Las Golondrinas, in Chubut. The area is said to have had the best production of red fruits in the country.

A year later, Olmos does not look like a man who lost everything. He says there is something in the fire that renewed his strength. He was chosen by his neighbours as a spokesman and traveled to Argentina’s capital city, Buenos Aires, to arrange aid for his community. Despite promises, not much came El Bolsón’s way.

“I don’t know if bureaucracy is any worse than fire,” he says with a laugh. “In the end we help each other.”

His community is creating a cooperative to sell regional products. They call it Cooperativa revolucionaria flor de fuego—revolutionary flower of fire. The first project is a children’s activity room to help children who no longer have a place to play. “Donations accepted,” he says.

A month ago, Olmos returned to live on his land, in a precarious way, while he begins to rebuild a new house. Of his ten pigs that he released during the fire, only two survived. One of them turned out to be pregnant and soon gave birth. Since his farm was in ruins, he gave the piglets to neighbours who had lost their animals so that they could start again. In his view, life makes its way, being reborn from the ashes.

Guido Bilbao is a journalist and documentary filmmaker who covers environmental issues in Latin America.

Alejandro Chaskielberg is an Argentinean photographer who documents environmental and social issues using night photography. Follow him on Instagram.

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