A strategic alliance between The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and CONAF, unique in the country, has permitted for the second year in a row to permanently implement a brigade specializing in the prevention and control of forest fires during the summer. The purpose of the brigade is to protect the Valdivian Coastal Reserve and the Alerce Costero National Park from any threat.
It is an issue of great importance for the whole nation in summer and it is something that is recurrent on a global scale given the high temperatures reached at that time of the year. According to CONAF, more than 6 thousand fires take place in Chile during the spring - summer period, affecting more than 50 thousand hectares of surface among bush, plantations and native woodland. It is a real threat and even more so if we consider that 99.9 % of them are caused by man. Our region has two protected areas in the coastal zone - a private road and a public one – that total some 75 thousand hectares of high value conservation, such as the Valdivian Coastal Reserve (VCR) and the Alerce Costero National Park (ACNP).
This is why The Nature Conservancy (owners and managers of the VCR) and CONAF joined forces to coordinate the work of a permanent fire brigade to protect both protected areas from this threat. “ The first VCR fire brigade dates back to 2005. It was an external service hired through a public tender and where the local people were employed but it was difficult since the members of the brigade had to have some experience and training in order to be employed in this task ”, Alfredo Almonacid, VCR Manager and Coordinator said.
After the creation of the Alerce Costero National Park in 2010, it was possible to prepare a protection plan for forest fires for the Park and the Reserve considering it as one single unit. In 2011, a joint work agreement was signed with CONAF that permitted to have the first brigade specializing in forest fires in Chile for protected areas and that has been active for two years now. It was agreed that under this agreement CONAF would contribute qualified technical staff and all the necessary clothing, and TNC would provide transport and accommodation for the fire brigade members as well as helping in the coordination and communication efforts.
As a matter of fact, to meet the last objective , the brigade communicates via a radio frequency with the ACNP and VCR management as well as with the operations center of the CONAF fire fighting department”, Almonacid said.
José Carter, regional CONAF director added: “With TNC we have common missions such as the mission of preserving and protecting biodiversity, which is why we join forces to establish a brigade whose role it is to prepare and possibly control events in the Reserve and in the Alerce Costero National Park - both places that are not the patrimony of our institutions, but the patrimony of the region and of the country ”. Carter added that, “For us, the main thing is the prevention carried out by the brigade together with our team members that move on motorbikes along the fields and rural sectors of the coast ”.
A specialized brigade on permanent alert
At present, the fire brigade, also known as the first attack brigade, is located in the VCR and is made up by a brigade head, people in charge of first aid, others in charge of pumps and tools. Alfredo Almonacid said that “This team patrols the area, from Corral up to the Valdivian Coastal Reserve and carries out permanent prevention campaigns while meetings neighbors, visitors and tourists, delivering leaflets with information necessary for all who come to these protected areas and its surroundings ”.
Fortunately, since the creation of the VCR in 2003 up to date, there has only been one serious fire during the summer of 2006, which was successfully extinguished with the help of CONAF, which is why the work of the brigade has been focused mainly on prevention. Fernando Mancilla, the current leader of the brigade, has worked for five periods as a forest fire brigade member. His first job was to manage the first aid kit, then he was in charge of the electric saws and in his second year he became the leader of the group.
According to the brigade member, all places are exposed to risks that might turn into a huge fire: the city center of Corral, the inhabited coastal areas, the natural protected zones, among others. “ For example, the bush is a place of easy combustion. The ulex or espinillo is abundant there nd it makes the fire spread very quickly, ” he said.
Acting rapidly is essential
The scarce distance between the Alerce Costero National Park and the Valdivian Coastal Reserve makes the work of this brigade easier, since they are the places most visited by tourists together with the Chaihuín beach.
“ Anything, from lighting a match to the incorrect maintenance of an electrical cable, can set off a forest fire. We focus very much on prevention ”, Fernando Mancilla explained. “ The focus is then on marking our presence in the sector to create wider conscience on the efficient use of the resources aimed for this subject and the fact that the Park and the Reserve function, in practice, as one single unit and from the eco-systemic point of view this has made our work easier and up till now the collaboration has been successful ”, Alfredo Almonacid pointed out.
Another way of fire preventions, both in the VCR and in the ACNP, is by controlling the entry of tourists to footpaths provided for such purposes in both places. This is additional to information, plus guided visits with the assistance of park rangers and local guides. If there is a fire alarm, radio frequency systems are used to communicate among the brigade members and the park rangers which is more rapid and effective. Patricia Barría, a park ranger from the Alerce Costero National Park, indicated that in case of an alert, “ Our mission is to facilitate the brigade members an easy access, even more so if it is an isolated sector without roads. As we know the areas well, we can direct and support the work of the brigade”.
“ Although it is a small brigade, it can come reach the place in time where the fire is just beginning and this way we can control it in quickly. The agreement with CONAF permits them to reach a bigger fire more quickly and to gain access to complementary support”, Alfredo Almonacid said.