More than 16,000 hectares (nearly 40,000 acres) were destroyed by a fire that forced the closure of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park between December 29, 2011, and January 4, 2012, and caused permanent environmental damage in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The park is one of the nature tourism meccas in Chile. Located in the Chilean Patagonia, it covers a total of 181,414 hectares (448,284 acres) and is among the preferred worldwide destinations for trekking, particularly for its famous five-day ‘W’ circuit (named for the shape of the route). In 1978, Torres del Paine National Park was declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, because it is one of the world’s most representative regions of different ecosystem and also provides opportunities to measure human impacts on the environment.
The stark granite rock formations known as the Towers of Paine, the Grey and Dickson glaciers, the numerous waterfalls and lakes, and an abundance of wildlife that includes endangered species such as the condor, the puma and the Huemul deer, are some of the main attractions of this protected area.
Unfortunately, the most recent recent conflagration is not the first time that a fire has started as a result of a tourist’s irresponsible conduct. In recent years, three forest fires have affected the park, all of them caused by visitors.
The first one occurred in February 2005, when an inferno that lasted 10 days destroyed more than 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres), or approximately 7 percent of the park. It was sparked by a gas stove used by a Czech tourist in a grassland area where camping was not authorised. The disaster was such that the Czech Republic quickly offered help to restore the damaged sectors and sent Czech experts. The forest cooperation project “Assistance to renew Torres del Paine National Park ecosystems damaged by the fire” ended in December 2010. It ran for five years and included reforestation with 180,000 Lenga (Nothofagus pumilio)plants.
In February 2011, a new fire was again cause for grief. An Israeli tourist who lit a bonfire in an unauthorised area initiated it, although it did not have the same catastrophic consequences because rain helped control the flames. The tourist was expelled from the national park and declared an unwelcome visitor because of his irresponsibility.
Most recently, on December 29, 2011, another Israeli citizen caused the second fire in one year when he tried to burn some toilet paper. The devastation, in this case, was far worse. So much so that volunteers from all over the world came to offer help, including Australian firefighters. Until last week, CONAF– the government agency in charge of managing protected areas in Chile – still had staff putting out blazes in different sectors of the park.
Impacts of the Fire
The native forest that was destroyed comprised trees that grow very slowly and reach maturity only after approximately 200 years. They also need to be protected from the cold and wind during the winter and the dryness during the summer.
Revitalising the scorched areas is therefore not just a matter of replanting small trees, but also of providing them with the required growing conditions. In addition, it’s important to consider that a large part of the fire went underground and affected the area’s soil. Wildlife living in the park will probably return to the damaged sectors only to find them completely barren and will have to move elsewhere in search of food and shelter.
The forced closure of the park also affected the local economy, which depends on income generated by thousands of foreign tourists who visit the area during the high season, between November and February.
It is estimated that tourism business owners lost US$2 million dollars, although this is a preliminary figure that may need to be revised upward. Many local businesses have made great efforts to avoid layoffs because their employees rely on the salaries they obtain during these months.
Data provided by park authorities shows that, despite the park’s partial reopening, visits dropped 50 percent in January. Thankfully, the Chilean government has allocated resources to support micro and small tourism enterprises in the area and has launched an aggressive international promotion campaign to maintain the flow of visitors to the park in 2012 and 2013.
Who’s to Blame?
This third fire in Torres del Paine caused a flurry of angry comments in social networks and the media, with Chileans demanding that the government change the rules for visitors to national parks, such as forbidding camping, and also allocate more resources to protection. Many people also complained about what was considered to be a slow reaction by the Israeli government to offer help, certainly in comparison to that of the Czech Republic in 2005.
The biggest issue is that Torres del Paineis mainly a destination for foreign tourists. Chilean visitors usually just go for a day trip, since the cost of staying overnight is too expensive for them. Many foreign tourists who also can’t afford to travel to the park with a tour operator and stay at one of the several accommodations available there choose to rent a car to go on their own and to camp.
Those are the riskier visitors, because many of them stay outside of authorised areas. In such cases – faced with inadequate infrastructure – they do whatever they can to be comfortable. Although they generally mean no harm, their limited knowledge of the park’s environmental conditions and their disregard for warnings by park rangers leads them to make wrong decisions.
The Israeli tourist who started this last fire has been forced to stay in the area until the legal investigation is over. He has claimed that there were no warning signs in the national park and that nobody gave him any guidelines. That may be true. National parks in Chile – as in many other countries – suffer from decades of insufficient funding to hire necessary personnel and implement adequate surveillance and prevention measures. Things will probably improve after this devastating fire, but until then it is up to us to act responsibly to ensure that beautiful places such as Torres del Paine National Park are preserved for the enjoyment of future generations.