Guanacaste Burns Down
• Province accounts for 75% of forest fires in the country.
• Tamarindo and Flamingo Schools suspended classes due to fires nearby.
In recent weeks, firefighters from Guanacaste have run into fire emergencies triggered mostly by uncontrolled fires in pastures and grasslands.
The mobilization has been done not only by firefighters but also by people and schools, such as La Paz Community School in Flamingo, which suspended classes before a wildfire could have spread dangerously close.
Educarte Education Center, located in La Garita, also had to stop lessons because of the risk that the fire caused. The same thing happened in different areas in downtown Santa Cruz, Nicoya, Carrillo, Flamingo, and Playa Potrero, among many others.
The dry season and a very substantial increase in wind speed were the ideal conditions for small fires to become wildfires, which in many cases put villages and communities at risk.
In Santa Cruz, employees of the Cooperativa de Electrificación Rural de Guanacaste, RL (COOPEGUANACASTE, RL, the rural electrical supply company) had to make a protective perimeter and wet the grounds around the main facilities of the cooperative to prevent the fire increasing at a nearby property to extend towards its premises. Other communities did their best to prevent the fire from compromising the safety of individuals and their properties.
Gabriela Chinchilla, a meteorologist at the National Meteorological Institute (IMN), reported that during February and March, the wind speed increased and presented gusts of up to 90 miles per hour in Guanacaste, making the area more vulnerable to fires.
According to the Fire Department of Costa Rica, the fires have increased significantly in Guanacaste in the first months of 2012 over the same period in 2011. The percentage change has been estimated at 554%.
According to the Fire Department, Guanacaste is considered particularly prone to forest fires, since there are three factors that increase the vulnerability: moisture level, wind, and type of vegetation. One of the main causes, however, is the practice of agricultural burning to clear land for harvesting.
The National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC, for its acronym in Spanish) and the National Fire Management Program of the Ministry of Environment, Energy, and Telecommunications (MINAET) indicated that during 2012, 60 fires have been addressed in Guanacaste versus 18 attended last year. They also estimated that 1,213.53 hectares have been affected against 78.99 ha. in 2011. Of the total fires, 45 were within protected areas in 2012, versus 13 in 2011.
Another point raised by the local Fire stations of paramount importance is the absence or poor maintenance of fire hydrants in the area. Firefighters also believe that people making burnings in an improper or irresponsible manner may cause countless fires. Such is the case of a widespread practice observed in the area: burning trash and debris from pruning activities (leaves, grass, logs).
For example, according to statistics of the SINAC-MINAE National Fire Management Program, from 2007 to 2011, the main reasons for the occurrence of forest fires were burning grass without permits (102), vandalism (87), agricultural burning (54), activities related to hunting (46), the burning of garbage (19), among others.
In Costa Rica, according to MINAET, forest fires have destroyed 884.5 hectares of protected areas so far this year. Authorities believe this is one of the worst fire seasons of its kind in the last ten years. "The country has recorded 105 fires so far this year, compared to 15 in the same period last year," said the Director of the Fire Department, Héctor Chaves. According to Chaves, more than twenty fires have been stifled in La Amistad National Park alone.
For two weeks, firefighters and a group of reinforcements were deployed to fight the fire that kept affecting the Chirripó National Park
"It's amazing the number of fires that we have," said Chaves. According to official data, the flames consumed 150 hectares in the area of Chirripó National Park; while near La Amistad, the burned area is about two thousand hectares. Both parks are protected areas of Talamanca Mountain Range. This represents a sharp increase compared to the same period last year, when there were 71.8 hectares destroyed.
"Costa Rica is going through one of the worst forest fire seasons in the last 10 years, this due to the high incidence of events, the state of vegetation and the people’s negligence," the Coordinator of the National Commission on Wildfire, Luis Roman said in a statement.
According to MINAET, fires were reported in six protected areas: Palo Verde National Park, Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve, and the wetland Corral de Piedra; all of them are located in Guanacaste (Pacific). In addition, there was another fire in Los Santos Forest Reserve (center) and the aforementioned: Chirripó National Park and La Amistad International Park. The fire in Chirripó National Park was one of the worst fires this season.
The lack of resources to deal with emergencies makes the problem worse. According to the Fire Department of Costa Rica, the costs associated with controlling a fire depends on the number of days and other factors. For example, while fighting the fire in Chirripó, firefighters worked for 22 days; the cost amounted 20 million colones, without including payroll costs and equipment.
To put this fire out, our country had to seek help from Guatemala, who sent a special helicopter for this kind of work. Some 200 fire fighters also went to the site to address the emergency in La Amistad International Park; in order to control the emergency, a helicopter from the Colombian Air Force was required.
According to official reports, if compared to last year (up to March 11), forest fires have increased by 1230 percent.
The burnings are the main triggers of forest fires. In the last fifteen years, the effects of forest fires on biodiversity and quality of life have been a concern for those who have been responsible for the protection, conservation, and development of natural resources, as stated by MINAET.
Since 1997, the country has been seeking to reduce the risk of fire with a National Fire Management Strategy aiming at defining the general guidelines for establishing institutional programs addressing the problem of forest fires permanently, as well as the use of fire in agricultural ecosystems.
Our national legislation authorizes the creation of forest fire brigades and regional commissions, which, according to the National Commission on Wildfire (CONIFOR, for its acronym in Spanish), have been the mechanism to integrate and jointly respond to this problem; civil society have been participating in the decision-making. CONIFOR is part of the MINAET’s National System of Conservation Areas.
Part of the work of this Commission is to train people as "Volunteer Forest Firefighters", as promoters in fire prevention and the eradication of burning agricultural waste and all-round malpractices.
Currently, there are 529 Volunteer Forest Firefighters between Guanacaste and Tempisque conservation areas, or 76.9% of the national total.
According to the CONIFOR, the figures are justified, as 75% of the national problem of forest fires takes place in the region, which is also the site where the greatest degree of organization and participation of society in controlling the problem is.
The National Emergency Commission (CNE) has made a new appeal to the public to avoid burning and to denounce those people who light fire without any control or authorization.