Sunday, April 21, 2024

4 dead as Mexico battles a record 120 wildfires in 19 states

Firefighters in Mexico are fighting 120 fires raging across 19 states, burning through areas of land that include 24 Natural Protected Areas (ANP).

Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (Conafor) reported Wednesday that 6,195 firefighters, along with 7 helicopter teams, are battling blazes that have ravaged 7,137 hectares. 

a line of firefighters approaching a mountain engulfed in white smoke
At least four people have died fighting the fires, according to government sources, including two volunteers. (Conafor)

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador told reporters Thursday that four people died this week while fighting the wildfires in México state. They included a police officer, a firefighter and two volunteers, he said.

The Aristegui Noticias news agency reported that the number of fires has increased sixfold since last week. Conafor’s March 15–21 report indicated there were only 20 active forest fires, covering just 208 hectares. On March 26, the commission reported 126 forest fires threatening 4,725 hectares. 

In the past two days, at least six fires have been brought under control, but active fires have burned an additional 1,400 hectares.

México state, which surrounds Mexico City on three sides, has the most active fires in the country, with 20, while Veracruz has the greatest amount of affected surface area, according to government officials.

The president said the National Civil Protection Coordination is working with the Defense Ministry, the Naval Ministry and Conafor in cooperation with state and municipal agencies to control the fires. 

Other federal entities besides México state that have been hard hit this year during the wildfire season include Hidalgo, Guerrero, Chiapas and Michoacán. The Mexico City Atmospheric Monitoring System (SIMAT) on Wednesday cited the fires in issuing a poor air quality alert to capital residents.

map of showing drought severity across Mexico, with several areas in maroon, red, brown or yellow
A federal drought map published last week. The red areas signify areas with “extreme drought” conditions and the maroon areas “exceptional drought.” Most of Mexico is considered to be experiencing at least abnormally dry conditions. (Conagua)

Since Jan. 1,667 forest fires have been registered in 23 of Mexico’s 32 federal entities, impacting more than 22,000 hectares, according to Conafor.

According to official data, the causes include both intentionally set fires as well as agricultural activities. Extended drought conditions, high temperatures and strong winds have combined to fuel the conflagrations.

Budget cuts to Conafor have also complicated fighting the record number of blazes. On Wednesday, the newspaper El Universal published columnist Héctor de Mauleón’s piece detailing how Conafor’s budget has been continually slashed since the beginning of López Obrador’s presidency.

In former President Enrique Peña Nieto’s final year in office, Conafor’s budget exceeded 5.3 billion pesos — about US $265 million in 2018 pesos. The following year, López Obrador’s government reduced Conafor’s budget by 34% to 3.5 billion pesos (worth about US $187 million in 2019).

When Conafor’s budget was decreased yet again in 2020, by an additional 8.5%, Greenpeace and other civil society organizations issued a statement warning that the dismantling of Conafor’s technical, human, financial and operational capacities put Mexico at great risk.

However, Conafor’s 2024 budget came in at just under 2.7 billion pesos — for a total 49% cut from where it had been in 2018 — even as the agency announced it was bracing for a potentially explosive wildfire season.

The risk of wildfires is exacerbated by the fact that Mexico has experienced an intense, generalized drought in recent years, as well as extreme temperatures.  Earlier this month the National Water Commission (Conagua) identified 14 federal entities as suffering from extreme drought.

With reports from El Universal and Aristegui Noticias

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