Survivors of Chile’s recent deadly wildfires have described a hellish nightmare, a hurricane of fireballs leaping from hill to hill, lighting up everything in its path in a matter of seconds.
Although the region experiences wildfires almost every year, the speed and lethality of last week’s blaze was unprecedented. At least 131 people died and hundreds are still missing in what was the country’s worst natural disaster in years.
Scientists say the main driving factor behind such a devastating event is simple: higher temperatures.
Part of the reason the wildfires spread over such a large area so quickly was strong winds. Raul Cordero, a climatologist at the University of Santiago, says strong summer winds are common in central Chile as air descending from the Andes and other high areas compresses and warms.
“What’s different this time is that the temperatures were much higher than before,” Cordero said. He noted that the region was experiencing a heat wave likely caused by climate change and the El Niño phenomenon, when abnormally warm water temperatures off the Pacific coast of South America affect global weather patterns.
“What happened last week is not normal,” said the researcher.
In addition to the heatwave that brought scorching temperatures, the Andean nation has also suffered from a devastating drought for the past 15 years, which helped fuel the wildfire.
“The drought created this mass of vegetation that quickly dried up and lost its water,” said Cesar Morales, a water resources expert at the University of Chile. “So, it’s very easy, with high temperatures, that [essa matéria orgânica] catch fire.”
Morales added that a similar phenomenon is occurring in the Argentine Andes, but in a larger area with lower population density. Last week, the Nahuel Huapi National Park, in the Patagonia region of Argentina, caught fire and thousands of hectares were burned.
As climate change worsens, scientists say extreme weather events will become more frequent and severe, making deadly events like last week’s fires more common.
“Without El Niño or global warming, it is very unlikely that we would have had the deadly wildfires of last week,” Cordero said.