Human–environmental drivers and impacts of the globally extreme 2017 Chilean fires
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In January 2017, hundreds of fires in Mediterranean Chile burnt more than 5000 km2, an area nearly 14 times the 40-year mean. We contextualize these fires in terms of estimates of global fire intensity using MODIS satellite record, and provide an overview of the climatic factors and recent changes in land use that led to the active fire season and estimate the impact of fire emissions to human health. The primary fire activity in late January coincided with extreme fire weather conditions including all-time (1979–2017) daily records for the Fire Weather Index (FWI) and maximum temperature, producing some of the most energetically intense fire events on Earth in the last 15-years. Fire activity was further enabled by a warm moist growing season in 2016 that interrupted an intense drought that started in 2010. The land cover in this region had been extensively modified, with less than 20% of the original native vegetation remaining, and extensive plantations of highly flammable exotic Pinus and Eucalyptus species established since the 1970s. These plantations were disproportionally burnt (44% of the burned area) in 2017, and associated with the highest fire severities, as part of an increasing trend of fire extent in plantations over the past three decades. Smoke from the fires exposed over 9.5 million people to increased concentrations of particulate air pollution, causing an estimated 76 premature deaths and 209 additional admissions to hospital for respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. This study highlights that Mediterranean biogeographic regions with expansive Pinus and Eucalyptus plantations and associated rural depopulation are vulnerable to intense wildfires with wide ranging social, economic, and environmental impacts, which are likely to become more frequent due to longer and more extreme wildfire seasons.
KeywordsFire weather Forest plantations Land cover change Mediterranean climate Smoke pollution Wildfire
This paper is based on a workshop led by AM-M, that Pia Osses and the Biogeography course 2017 helped organize. DMJSB and AM-M led the writing of the paper with input from all authors as follows: CAK finalized the figures; GJW and CAK undertook the FRP analysis; ROC and RR did the EVI anomalies and burn severity analysis and figures; AM and AG-R did the PDSI drought analysis and figures; JTA provided analysis of the fire climatology; FHJ, NB, LAC, and FDLB undertook the analysis of PM2.5 pollution and health impacts; FS evaluated the ecological impacts of the fires. This paper is the output of a symposium ‘Chile en Llamas’ held in May 2017 by Instituto de Geografía, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile. The work was supported by the following grants: Dirección General de Vinculación con el Medio PUCV, Fondecyt Iniciación No. 1150422, and 11161061; Fondecyt Regular No.1150425 Centro de Ciencia del Clima y la Resiliencia (CR)2; Fondap No. 15110009; CONICYT PAI No. 82140001; Fondecyt Iniciación No. 11171041; and Australian Research Council Linkage Grant LP130100146.
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