San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Firefighters battling more blazes

From the print edition

Wildfires in Costa Rica have increased sharply in 2012 compared to last year. Neglect and arson seem to be the prime causes of these fires, including the blaze that burned through 150 hectares in Chirripó National Park this month, said Héctor Chaves, chief of the Costa Rican Firefighters Corps.

Chaves said already 72 wildfires have been reported this year, compared to only 11 by the same date in 2011.

People often spark the conflagrations through campfires, burning farmland and garbage or acts of vandalism.

“There doesn’t exist a culture of prevention here,” Chaves said. “And so people continue handling fires in ways that are not appropriate.”

The worst case so far this year began on Feb. 27 in Chirripó National Park, home to the country’s highest peak (3,820 meters) in the Southern Zone. Firefighters have managed to stop the spread of the blaze, but it continues to smolder in the park. 

Authorities believe the fire was set intentionally by hunters or drug traffickers in a high-up, hard-to-reach thicket in a reserve of Chirripó called La Amistad International Park, located near Costa Rica’s border with Panama. Police started an investigation earlier in the week.

A lack of water in the area and strong winds that have grounded firefighting helicopters for most of the week have made it difficult to snuff out the fire. The land also has been dry due to low humidity. Some 130 national and regional firefighters are working to clear out brush near the blaze and retain a barrier around the fire. When the fire first started, high winds carried the flares through treetops.

Gusts of wind reached 110 kilometers per hour Wednesday, Chaves said. The unusually powerful winds resulted in almost 400 reports of damage, according to the National Power and Light Company. The National Meteorological Institute reported that winds, which topped 80 kph in the Central Valley, were the strongest in the country in 13 years.

 “The wind is making the works difficult,” Chaves said. “The winds facilitate the flames, and impede our helicopters.”

The helicopters, one contracted nationally and another donated by the Guatemalan Air Force, have conducted minimal flyovers because of the winds and early-morning fog. Guatemala was the only foreign country to loan a vehicle to Costa Rican firefighters. Chaves said that it’s unusual to receive foreign assistance in cases where lives are not in danger.

The fire is not in any touristic areas, and the damaged area represents less than 1 percent of the immense protected forest. No serious injuries have been reported. 

The worst damage from the fire could come after the fire is extinguished. Chaves said he worries erosion brought on by storms during the rainy season could push sediment from charred pastures into the water supply of local communities. 

Ronald Chan, director of the La Amistad Conservation Area, told El Financiero that the Térraba region around Chirripó supplies water to almost 200,000 residents.

He added that there is not yet data available for how animals were affected in the area. The reserve houses rabbits, pumas, tapirs, ocelots and several exotic birds. Chan said the area would take up to 40 years to recover from the blaze.

El Financiero also reported that seven other wildfires have occurred in area, according to the National System of Conservation Areas, but none since 1992.

President Laura Chinchilla and Environment Minister René Castro conducted a flyover of the blaze last weekend. During Chinchilla’s visit she stated the importance of capturing the arsonists, who are still at large.

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