Climate change and the wildfires in Chile

During the current statistical period which runs from July through June wildfires in Chile have burned 601,367Ha (1.5 million acres) which is 924 percent of average for the entire 12-month period. That fact alone does not prove anything but it can trigger a need to look at the factors involved.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Huffington Post:

Santiago, Chile and Los Angeles, California lie roughly the same distance from the equator and are subject to the same climatological forces. Both areas have endured years of record-breaking drought that has thinned forests and desiccated farms. In the summer heat, when winds pick up, fires can start easily and spread rapidly through dried vegetation.

For this, blame climate change. Heat-trapping carbon pollution is driving temperatures up across the globe, setting the conditions for severe heat, persistent dry spells and a high risk of fire. A recent study found that 25 percent of central Chile’s rainfall deficit could be attributed to human-caused climate change. Consistent with planetary warming, Chile is breaking heat records right and left. California is doing the same.

In looking at the chart above, increased emissions of greenhouse gasses did not CAUSE the fires in Chile, but it is possible that their effects created an environment that made it possible for wildfires, once ignited, to spread more quickly than they would have otherwise, and were more resistant to control.

Wildfires continue in Chile

Above: Tanker 03, a BAe-146, in Chile. Neptune photo.

The number of active wildfires in Chile has varied from week to week depending on the weather, but the drought-driven situation that has plagued Chile since December is still of great concern to the residents of the country —  especially since more than 1,000 homes burned in Santa Olga on January 25.

The tweet below refers to a fire in the Maule Region.

The 747 Supertanker returned to Colorado Springs on February 13 after being in Chile for three weeks. The Russian IL-76 is still there but is expected to depart on February 25.

Neptune’s Tanker 03, a BAe-146, arrived in the country February 4. It has completed 20 missions dropping on fires, but a spokesperson for the company told us today it has not flown since February 14. It is committed to remain in Chile through the end of this month.

IL-76 747 Supertanker air tanker chile
The Russian IL-76 (in the foreground) taxis past the 747, January 30, ,2017. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
IL-76 air tanker chile Santiago
The Russian IL-76 at Santiago, Chile January 30 shortly after it arrived in the country. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Wildfire expert from Spain analyzes fires in Chile

The fires have burned more than nine times the average number of acres.

The wildfires that have occurred in Chile over the last two months have attracted the attention of meteorologists, climate scientists, and wildland fire managers worldwide. During the current statistical period which runs from July through June the blazes have burned 601,367Ha (1.5 million acres) which is 924 percent of average for the 12-month period.

The organization that deals most closely with fires in Chile is not the national or regional government, but is CONAF.

From Wikipedia:

The National Forest Corporation or CONAF (Corporación Nacional Forestal) is a Chilean private, non-profit organization, through which the Chilean state contributes to the development and sustainable management of the country’s forest resources. CONAF is overseen and funded by the Ministry of Agriculture of Chile.

It administers the forest policies of Chile and promotes the development of the sector with sustainable forest management.

CONAF has been criticised in recent weeks for their response to the fires and their procedures for awarding contracts to international companies that provide firefighting helicopters and single engine air tankers.

Recently a group of wildland fire specialists from Europe visited Chile to evaluate the rash of fires in the country. One of them was Marc Castellnou, the Strategic Fire Analyst for the Government of Catalonia’s national fire services. Catalonia is a region in northeast Spain. In 2015 Mr. Castellnou received the Wildland Fire Safety Award from the International Association of Wildland Fire.

Safety Award wildland fire
Prof. Domingos Viegas (left), 2016 Wildland Fire Safety Award Recipient with Marc Castellnou, 2015 Safety Award Recipient at 14th International Wildland Fire Safety Summit, Barcelona, Spain. Photo by International Association of Wildland Fire.

CONAF held a press conference and published some of the fire specialists’ findings. Below is an excerpt from their summary. It has been automatically translated by Google and is a little rough.

…Marc Castellnou, one of the 14 specialists from the European Union Civil Protection System and an expert in the analysis of forest fire behavior, said that this tragedy was caused by three factors: temperature records, water stress of vegetation and Anticyclonic lock. The accumulation of fuel caused by eight years of drought is another contributing factor in the generation of the phenomenon.

The high simultaneity of fires with numerous hectares of fire, Castellnou explained, through meteorological studies through which he concluded that here was a real “storm of fire.” He gives as an example the fire of the Machines, in the Region of the Maule, where in 14 hours burned 115 thousand hectares [284,000 acres]. There, says the expert, the fire advanced with a speed of 6 kilometers for hours with an intensity of 60 thousand kilowatts, something that had not been seen so far worldwide.

This fire, he said, modified the atmosphere, as demonstrated by satellite imagery in which it can be seen how the column of smoke caused by the fires covers much of the Pacific Ocean and feeds on cold currents to continue advancing. An example of what is expressed is the analysis of temperatures recorded on Robinson Crusoe Island [map], where on the night of January 25th to 26th the temperature rose above its normal ranges and the humidity dropped remarkably as an effect of these megaincendios [megafire] at a distance of about 800 kilometers [497 miles].

Interview with a lead plane pilot about the 747 Supertanker

This article first appeared on Fire Aviation.

On January 24, 2017 the 747 SuperTanker left its base in Colorado Springs, Colorado for an assignment in Chile. It returned on February 13 after dropping on many wildfires in the South American country, making as many as seven sorties in a day each with 19,200 gallons of water enhanced with an additive to help make the water more effective, since long term retardant was not available.

Jamie Tackman
Jamie Tackman

After 17 years as a ground based wildland firefighter, with much as it as a smokejumper, Jamie Tackman transitioned to the air, becoming a lead plane pilot. He has worked off and on with the 747 air tankers since Evergreen converted the first one. Now retired from the U.S. Forest Service, he traveled to Chile to provide lead plane services for the huge aircraft operated by Global SuperTankers. This time he had a different role, or at least a different platform, flying ahead of the air tanker as usual but in an aircraft flown by military pilots.

Bill Gabbert interviewed Jamie, who began by describing the situation. Chile has no infrastructure for supervising, using, or refilling large or very large air tankers and they were unfamiliar with the concept of lead planes. In spite of these challenges the personnel working with the 747 and the other aircraft developed procedures to fight the fires from the air, while the local firefighters improvised a system on the ground for refilling the 747 and the IL-76 with water.

Aerial photos of wildfires in Chile

These photos were taken by the crew of the 747 Supertanker that is working out of Santiago, Chile. All of the pictures were shot at a fire south of Matanzas that burned about 19,000 hectares.

A Russian-made IL-76 air tanker takes off at Santiago, Chile. Photo by crew of the 747.
An IL-76 makes a drop on a wildfire south of Matanzas, Chile, February 1, 2017. Photo by the crew of Global Supertanker.
A Chilean military CASA lead plane flies ahead of the 747 Supertanker. Photo by crew of the 747.

The photo below is not exactly an aerial photo, except it was taken from the cockpit of the 747 Supertanker, which is pretty far above the ground even when parked on the ramp!

A Russian-made IL-76 air tanker on the Santiago ramp. Photo by crew of the 747.

Photos of the wildfires in Chile

Above: This appears to be a fuel tender on the Matanzas Fire. Either that, or a fuel truck repurposed as a fire engine.

We took these photos on February 2, on a fire south of Matanzas, Chile that had burned about 19,000 hectares (46,950 acres).

Matanzas Fire Chile
A typical burned area on the Matanzas fire.
Matanzas Fire Chile Eucalyptus
Many eucalyptus plantations were severely damaged. Here is a link to WebMD about the uses of eucalyptus.
Matanzas Fire Chile
The military had a presence at the Incident Command Post for the Matanzas Fire.
Matanzas Fire Chile
Dr. Gabriel Iribarren (orange vest) and his medical crew on the Matanzas Fire.
Matanzas Fire Chile helicopter
A helicopter approaches the Base Heliport on the Matanzas Fire. More photos of aircraft on the fire are at
Matanzas Fire Chile
A staging area on the Matanzas Fire.
Matanzas Fire Chile
A fire crew on the Matanzas Fire.

All photos are by Bill Gabbert.