This fire in Villa de Leyva, Boyacá, last August consumed over 350 hectares of forest in that municipality, one of the most scenic in the country. [Photo: Colombian National Bureau of Fire Departments]
This fire in Villa de Leyva, Boyacá, last August consumed over 350 hectares of forest in that municipality, one of the most scenic in the country. [Photo: Colombian National Bureau of Fire Departments]
The wave of fires that began in July and continues to plague Colombia has already destroyed 101,000 hectares in 504 municipalities. With 4,000 conflagrations detected, and that number growing daily, Colombia is facing one of its most serious forest emergencies this decade.

Dealing efficiently with an emergency of this magnitude, which has touched 29 of the country’s 32 departments, has required logistical cooperation between the Colombian National Bureau of Fire Departments (DNBC, for its Spanish acronym) and the Armed Forces.

“No aid organization in the world has the capacity to confront all cases of emergency, especially forest fires,” said Captain Germán Miranda, DNBC’s director. “So the support from the Armed Forces is crucial to battling the fires and helping the victims.”

So far in the second half of the year, the Disaster Response Engineering Battalion has provided more than 1,553 flight hours, dumping 3.3 million gallons of water. The Air Force has carried out 672 flight hours to conduct over 3,000 water dumps. For its part, the Army has over 1,000 service members working full time on extinguishing the fires.

The National Army Air Assault Division has provided support through a fleet of helicopters, making more than 1,070 water dumps using Bambi buckets – containers that hold between 420 and 660 gallons – to fight the forest fires directly from the air.

The response to the emergency that has been impacting the country since July has been possible due to support from the Air Force and the National Army’s Aviation units, in addition to Civil Defense offices, the National Police, and the Red Cross. All of these efforts have been coordinated through the National Disaster Management Unit.

“The relationships between civilian agencies and the Military agencies have allowed us to respond more efficiently,” Capt. Miranda said. “Although the damages have been very severe, we have protected 72 million hectares, including all of the country’s national parks.”

Armed Forces, a fire-fighting team

General Law 1523 on Fire Departments, which was enacted in 2012, authorizes the Armed Forces and the Police to support Fire Departments in special situations, such as fires at high-rise buildings or in large or difficult access areas, as well as during natural disasters.

After that law was enacted, the DNBC began providing a series of training sessions to platoons and battalions throughout the country, primarily to members of the Disaster Response and Prevention Engineering Battalion, which consists of 16 platoons located strategically in different regions. These service members are now trained to respond effectively to a fire, serving as reinforcements in emergency situations for the Fire Department, which has 22,000 firefighters nationwide.

“The Army stands always ready to assist the populace in the event of an emergency, but before this law [was enacted], Soldiers did not know the appropriate ways to fight a fire,” Capt. Miranda explained. “Today, we are providing a basic, eight-day course to teach Soldiers about personal protection, how to approach a fire, levels of security, types of ignition, and how to put out a forest fire, among other basic skills that have helped us manage risk.”

The departments with the greatest damage include: Casanare (15,953 hectares); Huila (10,851 hectares); Cundinamarca (10,713 hectares); and Arauca (10,288 hectares). [Photo: Colombian National Bureau of Fire Departments]
The departments with the greatest damage include: Casanare (15,953 hectares); Huila (10,851 hectares); Cundinamarca (10,713 hectares); and Arauca (10,288 hectares). [Photo: Colombian National Bureau of Fire Departments]
The El Niño phenomenon

The lack of rainfall caused by El Niño, a weather phenomenon related to the warming of the Eastern-Equatorial Pacific Ocean, is the primary reason behind the wave of fires. The weather pattern manifests in erratic cycles that last from three to eight years. Colombia has a dry season in which forest fires are common, though there are usually fewer blazes than there have been in 2015.

The last peak of forest fires caused by El Niño was in 2007, when more than 187,000 hectares were damaged by 1,600 incidents nationwide, according to the Colombian Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies Institute (IDEAM). However, the emergency response has been more efficient in 2015, when authorities recorded more than double the number of incidents compared to 2007, yet only 101,000 hectares have been damaged.

Notwithstanding, today’s fires represent a greater threat because the current population expansion means that fires are occurring closer and closer to residences. The droughts caused by El Niño leave vegetation vulnerable to fire, lower river levels, and warm the Pacific Ocean. Almost 10 percent of fires this year were “holistic” in nature, meaning they spread rapidly through dry vegetation, Capt. Miranda said. The forest fires started after “controlled” fires, which include camp fires and the burning of trash or waste, got out of hand and engulfed large agricultural areas.

Contingency plan to fight the fires

The El Niño phenomenon has intensified in the past few months and will affect the region through the first quarter of 2016, according to IDEAM. The reduced rainfall due to this weather variation will primarily affect Colombia’s Andean and Caribbean regions, particularly departments like La Guajira (78 percent precipitation deficit), Magdalena (54 percent), Atlántico (48 percent), and San Andrés y Providencia (47 percent).

Colombia is preparing a contingency plan, which includes conserving water and electricity, to counter the imminent threat posed by a prolonged and intense El Niño. Rescheduling planting times, preparing the ground substrate, and preparing sources of feed for livestock are also part of the contingency measures for the agricultural sector, which has been most severely affected by El Niño, with 60 percent of the fires striking crop-producing areas.

For its part, the Armed Forces, together with the DNBC, are preparing to provide ground and air equipment. In addition to bolstering the capabilities in battalions and tactical units across the country, the DNBC signed an agreement with the Army Air Assault Division for US$ 600,000 to procure four Bambi buckets, among other firefighting equipment.