Growing fire risk fuels tree-plantation doubts


Ashes from a fire, one of hundreds that burned in Chile’s Biobío region in Feb. 2023, blanket the forest floor near the city of Cabrero. (Photos by Castro and Schnaidt/Shutterstock)

When record Canadian wildfires this past boreal summer fouled the air as far south as Atlanta, Georgia, the Americas for the second time this year experienced how bad woodland blazes can become in the era of climate change.

The first example came in February, when Chile endured some of the worst wildfires in its history.

Like many other countries in the Americas and around the world, Chile faces sharply elevated wildfire risk. That’s thanks in large part to shifting weather patterns associated with climate change. And in central-south Chile, the problem is exacerbated by the proliferation of monoculture tree plantations, whose exotic species—mainly pine and eucalyptus—tend to catch fire more easily and burn more intensely than native-forest tree species.

In response, Chile’s government last month more than doubled the length of the official fire season. Until now, the fire season was considered to run from mid-December to mid-March. But on Sept. 23, the government issued a “Preventive Emergency Decree” for all 13 regions of the country, stating that there is an “increased risk of forest fires between October 2023 and May 2024.” The government has also boosted its budget for fire prevention, mitigation, and control by 47%.

Worldwide, scientists say, wildfires are becoming more intense, more extensive, and more frequent as climate change intensifies. The warming temperatures, which often produce record-breaking heatwaves, mean more drought, less snow, and fiercer winds that can turn forests into tinder boxes.

The list of record-setting wildfires has grown rapidly in recent years. Extreme heat in southern Europe in June 2017 contributed to fires in Portugal’s vast eucalyptus plantations that left 64 people dead and charred about 5% of the country’s territory. In 2019-2020, record-setting blazes burned in regions around the world, including the Australian state of New South Wales, the Brazilian Amazon, Siberia, and the U.S. state of California.

This past August, the deadliest U.S. wildfire in a century engulfed the Hawaiian island of Maui, magnified by unusually strong winds, drought, and fuel in the form of sugar and pineapple plantations on the western half of the island.

Weather conditions of the type that drove wildfires in the Canadian province of Quebec from May to July are now twice as likely to occur due to climate change. So says the U.K.-based World Weather Attribution initiative, which studies the role of climate change in extreme weather events.

And the effects on the landscape are seen long after such fires die down. With soil and vegetation still in the early stages of recovery there is not much resistance to mudslides and flash floods triggered by a major rain. For example, in 2018, mudslides killed more than 20 people and destroyed hundreds of homes in Montecito, California, a month after a megafire ravaged the land cover there.

Similarly, in June and again in August the central-southern zone of Chile experienced unusual “atmospheric rivers” that brought massive rainfall in short periods–the most the region had seen in 30 years. The deluge caused mudslides and river overflows, doing particularly heavy damage in areas denuded by recent fires.

Conaf, Chile’s forest service, forecasts heightened wildfire risk in the country’s central-southern section from October to December. In doing so, it cites increases in wind speed and ongoing fire vulnerability of the region’s abundant tree plantations compared to native forests.

A severe drought driven by climate change, meanwhile, has persisted for 14 years in Chile’s central-south, which has experienced an average annual rainfall deficit of about 30% during the period.

In its report “Analysis of Forest Fires for 2023-2024 Season,” Conaf also forecasts a higher probability of wildfires further south, in Patagonia, due to lower rainfall there and expects greater overall fire risk nationwide next year from January to May.

Severe forest fires have affected central-southern Chile for decades, producing deaths, serious environmental impacts, as well as social and economic dislocation. In the past few years, however, the region has experienced what have come to be called megafires. These blazes, extreme in their size and impact, are no longer rare.

Among the examples are Chile’s wildfires of 2017. Ranked at the time as the country’s worst on record, the fires that year scorched more than 500,000 hectares (19,300 sq. miles) and cost an estimated US$350 million to fight.

Meanwhile, the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted in the 2017 fires totaled nearly 100 million tons, according to the Center for Climate Science and Resilience (CR)2, an interdisciplinary Chilean research organization. That’s equivalent to 90% of Chile’s CO2 emissions during all of 2016, (CR)2 says. Or, put another way, the CO2 output of the fires amounted to 23 years’ worth of carbon emissions from all of the light passenger vehicles in the Chilean capital of Santiago, which is home to a third of the country’s population of 20 million.

Six years later, the megafires of the 2023 season scorched 400,000 hectares (1,500 sq. miles) and required more than US$300 million to extinguish.

Official statistics show that 89% of Chilean territory affected by February’s wildfires extends from the Valparaíso region in the central part of the country to the La Araucanía region in the south. Only 1% of the country’s wildfires were bigger than 200 hectares (500 acres), but blazes of this large size now account for 74% of the land area burned in Chile each year.

Half of the area affected by large fires from 1985 to 2018 was covered by tree plantations growing non-native pine and eucalyptus species, the government says, while 20% of such fires involved native forests.

Scientists say Chile’s three million hectares (11,600 sq. miles) of tree plantations represent a greater fire threat than native forests because their relatively young, densely packed trees burn more readily and intensely.

“Forestry development has undoubtedly been one of the factors that has led to a substantial change in the fire regime with respect to the increase in the area burned and the magnitude of today’s large fires,” says Antonio Lara, a professor of forest sciences and natural resources at the Universidad Austral de Chile for more than 30 years and one of the lead researchers for the Center for Climate and Resilience Research. “There has been a rapid expansion of monoculture tree plantations, concentrated in pine and eucalyptus. These are highly flammable exotic species that are planted in continuous areas generating homogeneous landscapes.”

Chile’s plantation forestry industry dates from the 1950s, but it experienced a growth boom starting in 1974, when the newly installed military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet enacted legislation, Decree Law 701, providing generous economic incentives for tree farming. The subsidies lasted nearly four decades—until 2012—with some 80% of them going to Chile’s three largest forestry companies and the resulting growth helping to establish wood products as one of the country’s leading export earners.

Plantation forestry was promoted not only for economic-development reasons, but also as a means of combating soil erosion. Its profitability fueled massive expansion in central-southern Chile, with tree plantations for a time displacing significant quantities of native forest rather than being developed on former pastures and other areas of open land.

Scientists from the University of Chile and the University of Wisconsin-Madison concluded in a 2020 study that from 1975 to 1988, tree plantations replaced 40% of native forests in the coastal range of the Maule, Ñuble, and Biobío regions. The area of approximately 950,000 hectares (3,700 sq. miles) had long been dominated by native woodlands.

Forestry expert Aníbal Pauchard notes that issues such as fires and climate change were not considered at the time. As a result, he says, entire watersheds were transformed into tree plantations, leaving the territory more vulnerable than it was before to catastrophic fires.

“In many cases, they have replaced scrub and grasslands and even some agricultural areas and native forests,” says Pauchard, a forestry professor at the University of Concepción’s Institute of Ecology and Biodiversity (IEB). “These planted forests have a high fuel load with [exotic] species that have evolutionary characteristics associated with forest fires.”

Those characteristics, which in pine and eucalyptus include volatile oils, can supercharge the spread and intensity of wildfires.

Tracy Katelman, director of ForEverGreen Forestry, a U.S. consultancy that in 2014 helped Conaf set up a community wildfire-preparedness program, says the expansion of monoculture plantation forestry has made a bad situation worse.

“You’ve got to have diversity,” Katelman says. “When you have all these large landscapes with monoculture plantations, it just takes getting some fire in there with the wind behind it and there’s nothing to stop it.”

Firefighting not the answer

With climate change creating the conditions for more frequent, more powerful wildfires, she adds, conventional fire suppression methods are no guarantee.

“We can’t fight our way out of this,” Katelman says. “Even California, with the best resources, literally millions of millions of dollars, it’s not something we can fight and win.”

She argues that a crucial challenge is to help communities near tree plantations retrofit homes and redesign the landscape with fuel breaks to remove combustible materials or flammable conditions.

Many experts question whether sufficient public and private funding will be available to take the necessary protective measures at scale. Indeed, some insist that finding a genuine solution—particularly in the tree-plantation region of central-southern Chile—will involve rethinking the future of the country’s commercial forestry model. Lara calls for efforts to educate and organize communities in fire prevention, and to strengthen the investigation and punishment of those who cause fires.

“These actions require a stronger state that develops and implements robust and coherent land-use policies, and that Chile’s two large forestry companies profoundly modify their practices,” says Lara, who as a longtime professor at Chile’s leading forestry school has trained many foresters now working in the private and public sector.

Lara is optimistic, however. With the passage of Chile’s Framework Law on Climate Change last year, a shift from tree plantations to native forests is already underway. The legislation, part of an ambitious environmental agenda pursued by President Gabriel Boric, aims in part to restore one million hectares (3,861 sq. miles) of land with native forest by targeting areas affected by wildfires with subsidies and other incentives. In its Article 5, the law states that its guidelines “will not incentivize the planting of forestry monocultures.”

Transforming landscape

“The impetus that the current government is giving to implementation of the Framework Law on Climate Change and to greater native-forest-restoration resources for small landowners, as well as initiatives by some forestry companies, is key to the transformation of landscapes dominated by extensive plantations,” Lara says. “This transformation implies the replacement of part of the plantations in such a way as to move toward heterogeneous landscapes, with less combustibility, less occurrence of fires and more resilience.”

In an interview with EcoAméricas, Conaf Executive Director Christian Little says the key challenge is to create “resilient landscapes that are not susceptible to these types of events.” (See Q&A—this issue.) Little notes that Conaf is backing large-scale projects to convert plantations to native forests, as well as smaller-scale efforts to sustainably manage native forests, one of which—a project called “+Bosques”—is being financed by the UN Green Climate Fund. He considers a move away from vast tracts of contiguous plantation forests as crucial. Concurring with researchers, he said that while 99% of fires in Chile are caused by people, homogenous pine and eucalyptus tree farms dramatically magnify them.

“When there are landscapes that have a continuity of plantations, there are hundreds and thousands of hectares of a landscape that is much more prone to catastrophic fire,” Little says. “The only way to have strong measures on climate-change adaptation issues is to restore landscapes, make them more resilient, and that means providing greater heterogeneity and greater complexity, not only to the landscape, but also to the people who have a vision beyond the forest, beyond the plantations, an ecosystemic vision.”

- James Langman

In the index: One of February’s Biobío fires shown soon after it started. (Photos by Castro and Schnaidt/Shutterstock)

Tracy Katelman
ForEverGreen Forestry
Sacramento, California
Tel: +(707) 845-8579
Antonio Lara
Principal Researcher
Center for Climate and Resilience Research (CR)2
Valdivia, Chile
Tel: +(569) 5360-7275
Christian Little
Executive Director
Chilean National Forestry Corporation (Conaf)
Santiago, Chile
Tel: +(562) 2663-0340
Anibal Pauchard
Professor, Director
University of Concepción
Association of Foresters for the Native Forest
Concepción, Chile
Tel: +(56 41) 220-4934
Jennifer Romero
Executive Director
Grouping of Forest Engineers for Native Forest (AIRBN)
Valdivia, Chile
Tel: +(56 63) 223-8790