The worst fires in more than a decade are cutting through Argentina’s vast wetlands, exacerbated by low water levels in the Parana River delta region that have exposed carbon-rich soil ripe for burning.
A firefighter is seen in a wetland on the shore of Parana River near the city of San Lorenzo, in Santa Fe province, Argentina August 28, 2020. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian/File Photo
Infrared technology and satellite imagery have detected more hot spots, or potential fires, in the country’s largest wetland during August than have been found in any other month this year, scientists said.
Rain over the last two days has quelled new hot spots, but water levels are not forecast to rise significantly along the Parana River - a major grains shipping route for port city Rosario, according to the National Institute of Water.
Wetlands play a crucial role in mitigating floods and purifying water, so their destruction is a major concern for scientists. The water-logged ecosystem is home to thousands of species, including the capybara, the world’s largest rodent.
Natalia Morandeira, a wetlands biologist at the University of San Martin who has been tracking the fires using NASA data, said people living in the island communities along the banks of the Parana had lost their homes and livestock in the blaze.
Firefighters, who are often volunteers, are scarce in some areas in the delta, and residents are struggling to contain the fires themselves using buckets of water, she said.
“This is the worst situation since 2009,” said Morandeira, adding that she had detected 16,000 new hot spots in August alone, accounting for 59 per cent of the 26,667 detected for the whole year so far.
Some of driest conditions in Argentina since at least 2008 have fueled the spread of the fires over the last three months, meteorologists said.
Dry conditions in neighboring Brazil also led to a 50-year low level in the Parana River this year. In Rosario, the river was 1.16 meters on Wednesday despite recent rains, well below the September average of 2.67 meters, according to the Argentine Naval Prefecture.
The wetlands blaze coincides with fires in the grasslands and mountainous region of Cordoba province, which has also been made worse by a lack of rain.