Patagonia is the end of the world, if anyplace is, and it’s burning.
Perched at the very southernmost tip of South America, the mountainous, fjord-crossed region is an inhabited wilderness. Almost 2 million people live there, on either side of the border between Chile and Argentina. For human history, wildfires were not common there and summers were mild and wet.
But in March, the end of last summer for the southern hemisphere, a series of fires destroyed over 54,000 acres of forestland, burned 300 homes, and killed three people. The 2021-22 summer is already off to a roaring start as well, with 15 wildfires burning in the Patagonia provinces of Argentina, which are drier than those in Chile. Several of those fires are uncontrolled, and two firefighters died in a helicopter crash.
“The fact that this is happening so early in the summer season is very striking,” says Thomas Kitzbergerm, who studies forest fires and climate change at Argentina’s National University of Comahue. “…But it does not surprise me at all.”
There are two large factors to Kitzbergerm’s lack of surprise: Last winter, Patagonia saw very little snow, so little that several Andes ski resorts weren’t ever able to open. Climate studies indicate that northern Patagonia is both drying up and getting water, which means plants are dehydrated. Perfect tinder.
The other major factor is the way the forests have changed. The old-growth timber in Patagonia is hardwood like lenga, but reforesting efforts in the 1970s flooded the region with fast-growing invasive pine trees. And pine trees burn, sometimes explosively. Not only that, but fire encourages more pine to grow, out-competing native, less flammable species of tree.
The result of both factors is more fires and more severe fires, and fires that will continue to focus on inhabited parts of Patagonia, as that is where the pines are.