Home » Blog » ‘They Told Us the Fire Would Never Come’: Argentinians Battle Blazes in Gap Left by Government
Featured General News Global News News North America South America

‘They Told Us the Fire Would Never Come’: Argentinians Battle Blazes in Gap Left by Government

Acaravan of trucks with foggy windows made its way up an unpaved fire road above Ascochinga, a small town off Route 53 in the Sierras Chicas, the picturesque mountain range that runs the western length of Argentina’s central Córdoba province.

Many of the 75 people gathered at the nature reserve before dawn that July morning had never met before. Others had been through hell and back together.

The eight groups in attendance, representing small towns scattered across the western spine of the province, call themselves brigadistas, a common term for members of fire brigades. But in Córdoba, the brigadistas aren’t official firefighters.

They are neighbors, who since a record-setting 2020 wildfire season in which nearly 1m acres (405,000 hectares) burned, are making do with what handmade or donated equipment they have and going toward, not away from, the fires, with one goal in mind: defend the forest.

The Ascochinga resident and member of the newly formed El Mirador Brigade Walter Zárate said with fire now threatening his neighborhood year after year, he and his fellow brigadistas felt they had no other choice.

“We couldn’t just stay without doing anything,” Zárate said.

This area of the Sierras Chicas is known for low-burning, fast-moving fires that come from the west, tearing across the shrubby landscape. The group was working to make a three-meter break in vegetation that would, in theory, buy the brigades enough time to stop a fire from descending on the nature reserve to the east.

Córdoba is one of the country’s major agricultural hubs, accounting for more than a quarter of the nation’s soya bean production, of which Argentina is third largest producer in the world. But Córdoba is drying up: after three consecutive years of drought, the summer of 2022-23 was the driest on record since 1929, leading the province to declare an agricultural drought emergency amid record-setting heat across South America. And with drought comes wildfires.

Córdoba is widely regarded as the nation’s best-equipped province for firefighting, but that hasn’t stopped yearly blazes from sweeping through its arid landscapes – this year, nearly 20,000 acres (8,000 hectares) burned in just three months – destroying livelihoods and further reducing the measly 5.5% of Córdoba’s native forests that remain.

Every few years, the destruction reaches a much larger scale. In 2020, the province saw a worst-case scenario.

“We had a lot of resources, but the fire exceeded the expectation of what fire itself is,” said Gustavo Poreoles, head of the Villa de Soto fire station, who also led its operations in 2020.

Local leaders chalk up the province’s high fire risk to drought, deforestation, expanding urbanization and soya bean production, and a lack of education about wildfire risks. While burning is illegal in much of the province, the law is poorly enforced – and intentional burning, whether for pasture renewal or to clear land for development – is still commonplace.

The province has begun to take action, creating Argentina’s first paid strike team of 700 wildland firefighters, building out its early alert system and starting to implement some fire prevention strategies such as cutting electricity during especially windy days and teaching fire awareness at local schools.

But still, firefighters can’t be everywhere at once, and the prevailing policy among the all-volunteer barracks is to leave wildfires burning in the hard-to-access hilltops and instead expend resources to save lives and homes. In 2020, that almost destroyed a 17th-century Unesco world heritage site when a fire bore down on the vulnerable church and the rural agrarian community of La Candelaria.

“When we called and warned the province, they told us not to be afraid,” said Gabriela Heredia, who lives at the church as its docent. “They told us that the fire would never come to La Candelaria.”

Little by little, the brigadistas are becoming more professionalized to fill holes left by the government. Many have been receiving training from the professional Defensa Verde Forestry Brigade and the groups have a growing rapport with local officials, this year working more closely than ever with firefighters and police.

But their work isn’t strictly by the book – the brigadistas are operating outside the existing legal framework for firefighting in the province – so even those with the best local reputations lack recognition from higher-ups and can be shut out of private property or told to leave by police.

Nor is their work completely safe: during 2020, two people died trying to fight off the fires themselves. And in 2022, firefighter Luana Ludueña died by suicide after she alleged she was sexually abused by a former civil defense director, prompting a group of female brigadistas to march on the capital and ultimately form Fuegas, a support group to discuss gender violence and machismo in firefighting.

At the July meeting, their canary-yellow helmets displayed slogans such as “Luana is present.”

Still, they aren’t afraid. The brigadistas recognize how vulnerable they are, both from a physical and institutional standpoint. But the alternative is joining the official barracks, conforming with its hierarchy and, most consequentially, its willingness to sacrifice precious forest ecosystems in favor of defending property.

“The question is: what do we want to care for?” said Antonella Ferraro, a member of El Colibrí Brigade. “It’s fundamental that we listen to all the voices of the territory, otherwise we are going to fall into the same mistakes over again.”

Source: The Guardian