BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (CN) — Wildfires sweeping across northeastern Argentina have consumed over 2.5 million acres, driven by extreme drought.
Fires have been raging across the province of Corrientes since this past December and have consumed 12% of the territory, known for its production of rice, cotton, tobacco, citrus and cattle.
The initial economic losses stand at $645.7 million (70 billion Argentine pesos), according to the Corrientes Association of Rural Societies, with the fires largely extinguishing agriculture production in the province.
Flames have also entered the expansive Iberá National Park, the second-largest wetland in the world, threatening the habitat of 4,000 species of flora and fauna.
Hundreds of national firefighters have been battling the flames for months, aided by a brigade of 70 Bolivian firefighters sent by the neighboring government to help.
This past week rare rain clouds brought brief respite to firefighters, rescue workers and agricultural producers before some fires stoked again albeit with less intensity.
Despite the main fires dissipating, the forecast is not encouraging for Corrientes, with little rain and warmer weather expected due to the La Niña weather pattern, which occurs every few years when strong winds blow warm Pacific water from South America to Asia, causing cold water from the deep to rise to the surface.
The weather phenomenon affects weather globally. In the U.S., winters are drier and warmer in the south and cooler and wetter in the north. In South America, La Niña delays Brazil’s wet season and brings drier conditions to Argentina, two major agricultural powerhouses where crop are likely to suffer.
"In January it seemed that La Niña was going to weaken, but it intensified, which helped establish such a dry pattern,” said José Luis Stella, a climatologist from the National Meteorological Service. “The latest predictions say that it will last all autumn,” which in Argentina runs until May.
Data from the U.S. backs up this prediction, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently raising the likelihood of La Niña lasting until May to 77%.
Wildfires have plagued not only Argentina but also broad areas of South America. Colombia and Venezuela, where the fire season typically lasts from February to April, are also experiencing fires due to dry conditions.
Paraguay has also been hit by some of its worst fires in recent years. Together with neighboring Argentina, the combination of heatwaves and dry conditions have sparked record wildfires in the region, according to the European Union's Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service. Between January and February, forest fires in both countries produced the highest amount of carbon emissions since the organization began collecting data in 2003. Fires in Paraguay released around 5 megatons of carbon while Argentina produced 12 megatons, including 5.5 megatons from Corrientes.
(Courtesy of the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service)
As record levels of carbon emissions get sucked into the atmosphere, the effects of climate change are leading to greater frequencies in wildfires as it brings more extreme weather conditions.
“The drought continues because the tributaries and water reserves have been exhausted,” said Martín Bruzzo, head of the Association of Rural Societies of Corrientes. The province typically has 50% of its water resources on the surface, with livestock and agriculture production accustomed to that. “This natural cycle broke,” Bruzzo told Infobae, a national news site.
Crops that the province is known for, such as citrus, herbs and tea, are dying. And this not only implies short-term economic impacts but longer-term consequences. “It’s not a case of it raining now or next year and the crops recover,” added Bruzzo. “No, we have to plant again and try to recover in five years.”
For the animals that survived, the shrinking pastures swallowed by fire and neglected by rain meant they couldn’t feed properly, leading to cows, horses, pumas, and caimans to flee along country roads in search of safety and water.
One livestock producer, Ricardo Mathó Meabe, spoke of the sheer size of the catastrophe. “The amount of things in your head and the problems to solve just seem impossible,” he told a regional news site.
It will take more than spells of rain to clear away the damage and return to normal. “They burned to the roots, so the fields are not rejuvenating and that is the fear we have,” Meabe added. “There is a very complicated outlook from here on out. It’s going to take us no less than three years to get everything back to normal.”
Last week, the national deputy politician of Corrientes Ingrid Jetter sent a bill to Congress that would declare a road emergency across the province and allocate resources to alleviate dangerous road conditions caused by the smoke and fleeing animals.
“In this wildfire emergency, there is another impact that transcends the economic and that has not yet been fully measured, it is the environmental and ecological impact,” said Jetter. “We have seen sad images of thousands of native animals migrating along roads looking for safe places.” As such, the deputy is seeking “exceptional measures” as well as “comprehensive attention by all provincial and national government agencies.”
In response, multiple currents of financing and subsidies have been channeled into Corrientes by the provincial and national government, the provincial bank and private entities.
The consequences in Corrientes are going to outlast the wildfires. Forests have been destroyed along with agriculture. Livestock has been lost and wildlife has fled. The full scale of loss can only be assessed once the smoke clears.
“What happened in Corrientes was like an earthquake, a hurricane," Bruzzo said. “The most symbolic thing was the fire, but the worst is yet to come, when winter begins and brings frost. There will be a lot of animal mortality here, huge. It’s going to be a ghostly scene.”
With record fires spreading across Corrientes, it has reignited a debate on the need for a wetland law, which would introduce greater protection, regulation and conservation to wetland areas.
Dozens of bills have been sent to Congress but none have passed, highlighting the difficulty in finding consensus around stronger environmental laws despite regular protests in favor of them. Meanwhile, there are currently 16 ongoing court cases related to arson across the province in connection to the wildfires. In one case, an old couple stand accused of started a fire to burn their garbage and ended up burning 42,000 acres — about the size of Washington, D.C.
Courthouse News correspondent James Francis Whitehead is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
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