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Chile risks repeat of deadly wildfires because of climate change


A wildfire in Vina del Mar, Chile, February 3, 2024. /CFP
A wildfire in Vina del Mar, Chile, February 3, 2024. /CFP

A wildfire in Vina del Mar, Chile, February 3, 2024. /CFP

Deadly wildfires like those that burned through central Chile and killed at least 133 people this month will become more likely in the South American country as climate change makes the world hotter and drier, according to a report released on Thursday.

The fires were Chile's deadliest natural disaster since a 2010 earthquake that killed about 500 people. Strong winds and high temperatures helped drive the rapid advance of the blazes into populated areas around the cities of Vina del Mar and Valparaiso.

The report from World Weather Attribution, an international group of scientists that studies the effects of climate change on extreme weather events, analyzed that spike in conditions that feed fires – temperature, wind speed and atmospheric moisture – as measured by a metric called the Hot Dry Windy Index (HDWI).

The report found that neither global warming nor the El Nino climate phenomenon drove that recent increase in the HDWI during the fires, as that coastal region of Chile is actually cooling while temperatures are warming inland.

But that will change with global warming, the scientists said.

"We expect a lot of these fires to happen in the future," Joyce Kimutai, a researcher at Imperial College London's Grantham Institute and co-author of the study, told reporters.

In the current global scenario of 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming compared to pre-industrial times, the scientists said that a four-day period with an HDWI similar to the recent fires would be expected once every 30 years.

"However, if warming reaches 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), it's likely the fire-prone weather will become more intense around Vina del Mar and Valparaiso," said Tomas Carrasco, a researcher at the University of Chile and co-author of the report.

Temperatures are on track to rise up to 2.9 degrees Celsius (5.2 degrees Fahrenheit) this century, based on current climate pledges, according to the United Nations.

The report's authors also found that urban growth and land use change were big factors that led to the fires being so deadly.

Mauricio Santos of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre in Colombia said that expansion of pine and eucalyptus tree plantations has destroyed natural firebreak barriers over decades, while urban areas encroach on forests.

"We found that the most devastating fires happened in areas with significant land-use changes and where urban planning was inadequate," Santos said, adding that better warning systems, evacuation planning and fireproofing systems are needed.

Source(s): Reuters
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