Corrientes, Argentina, Feb 22 (EFE).- Wildfires have already burned roughly 9 percent of the territory of the northeastern Argentine province of Corrientes, causing an environmental disaster that has overwhelmed local resources.
The blazes are blamed in part on the effects of climate change and a prolonged drought, although arson also is expected to have played a role.
Rains and lower temperatures over the weekend brought some relief, but “the situation remains extremely complex,” Sergio Federovisky, the Environment and Sustainable Development Ministry’s environmental control and monitoring secretary, told Television Cooperativa.
The fires have scorched 785,238 hectares (3,030 square miles) in Corrientes, a province that borders Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay, the National Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA) said in its latest update on Feb. 16.
An Environment Ministry report on Tuesday said 10 fires remained active and one other had been brought under control in Corrientes, where the government has deployed five water bombers, a spotter plane and three helicopters to assist 188 firefighters and support personnel put into action by the National Fire Management Service.
“This won’t be extinguished until it rains,” the director of volunteer firefighting operations in Buenos Aires province, Ramon Pared, told Efe, adding that winds of up to 50 kilometers (31 miles) per hour are fueling the blazes.
Corrientes has been declared an “environmental disaster zone” and has received economic assistance from most of the country’s provinces, as well as from the national government and private citizens.
International aid also has arrived from Brazil, which has provided military firefighters, two fire engines, a tank truck and five pick-up trucks.
Some 70 firefighters are expected to arrive from Bolivia, and requests for support have been made to France, Chile, the European Union, Russia and the United States.
“I’ve never seen a fire of this proportion,” a firefighter from the far-southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul, Tiago Rodriguez, told Efe.
The national government has been put on the defensive by the crisis, with the opposition accusing President Alberto Fernandez’s administration of responding too slowly and environmental officials admitting mistakes.
“We should have requested more assistance before the situation got out of control,” Federovisky told the Metro radio station. The Argentine government did not anticipate that “these climate change-derived problems would start occurring in such a violent way.”
The fires have devastated the flora and fauna of Corrientes – where species that had long disappeared from the province were being reintegrated – and caused major destruction in some productive and tourist areas.
The Ibera Wetlands, Argentina’s largest and the second biggest worldwide after Brazil’s Pantanal, are a particular cause of concern.
More than 460,000 hectares of that region of swamps, bogs, stagnant lakes and lagoons have been affected thus far, according to INTA.
The blazes also have razed 31,265 hectares of cultivated forests and 28,733 hectares of native forests.
Provincial authorities currently estimate the total economic loss from the fires at around 40 billion pesos ($373 million).
Environmental experts, for their part, caution that an enormous task lies ahead in terms of both adapting to climate change and confronting the collateral effects of the fires. EFE