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  HOME | Bolivia

Bolivia’s Relentless Fires Will Only Stop If the Heavens Open

CONCEPCION, Bolivia – Heavy rain is the only thing that could save Bolivia from the raging fires that will fuel global warming, a Colombian expert and advisor to Bolivian authorities warned Friday.

“The solution comes from the heavens, there is no other option,” Carlos Sarmiento told EFE.

“We have to wait and while we wait, the fire advances,” he added with resignation.

Sarmiento, a specialist in fire control, said that the damage left by weeks-long fires in the Bolivian Chiquitania, a region of tropical savannas in the east of the country, could not be quantified yet.

Forests near protected areas and villages have been threatened by the “endless flames.”

The expert warned the wildfires would affect the levels of “pollution and warming” in global terms.

So far the strategy against the fast-moving flames has focused on protecting communities under the “move people” motto.

Fire brigades are also working to prevent crops and homes being consumed by the flames, he said.

Unfortunately, forest fires with trees up to 40 meters high engulfed in flames would unlikely be tackled by firefighters as there is no way of entering the dense woods.

Sarmiento considers the situation has now reached tipping point due to a lack of know-how and professionalism of those in charge.

“Whilst experience is being racked up through the emergency, the fire has been increasing,” he lamented.

When asked if his critique included politicians he said “yes.”

For Sarmiento the fire was foreseeable.

Every 10 or 12 years a fire of this magnitude occurs in the dry Chiquitano forest.

The expert said the cause of the fire could be due to slash-and-burn fires carried out in rural areas to clear land for agricultural and livestock use that had gotten out of control.

“Firefighters indeed put out fires but the community or landowner comes back and lights it up again to clear the land,” he said.

President Evo Morales passed a law last July authorizing slash-and-burns which has been heavily criticized by the international community and environmental groups which have urged it to be suspended.

Sarmiento said the efforts to involve the world’s largest tanker, capable of holding up to 18,600 US gallons of fire retardant or water, had been futile.

Adverse weather and lack of visibility due to concentrated smoke had hindered any firefighting efforts so far.

In several towns and communities, such as San Matias, San Ignacio de Velasco and Robore, the smoke is relentless and sunrises are a haze of smog as the fire burns surrounding areas.

It has been almost a month since the Bolivian government intervened in this environmental tragedy, following the declaration of departmental emergency by the government of Santa Cruz, the region to which the Chiquitania belongs.

Many have urged the Bolivian government to declare it a national emergency.

Environmental organizations and the Santa Cruz government say some 2 million hectares have been affected by the wildfires.


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