Mexico Suffocated by Wildfires

Mexico City experienced an environmental contingency on April 27, the second in less than a week as decreed by the Environmental Commission of the Metropolitan Area (CAME). Jorge Zavala, coordinator of the National Meteorological Service, explained that ongoing forest fires that contributed smoke to the center of the country were observed and complicated the situation in the capital, which was already experiencing a difficult situation derived from pollution mainly from vehicles, from industries, and homes.

 

Thus far, 2021 has been one of the most challenging years in terms of forest fires in Mexico, according to the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR).  In the first three months of the year there were 2,871 wildfires, equivalent to 73,459 hectares burned. Currently, CONAFOR reports 87 active fires are burning in 17 of Mexico’s 32 states.

 

In comparison, the year 2013 saw 4,431 wildfires, equivalent to 80,492 hectares burned. Given that we are just a little more than four months into the year, it is believed that 2021 could be the most catastrophic wildfire period in 23 years. Back in 1998 there were 6,141 fires, and more than 116,264 hectares were affected.

Causes

There are three main causes for the increase in fires:

First, 2021 has been an atypical weather year with tremendous heat and drought. This weather pattern has created an environment highly conducive to forest and wildfires.

Second, adding to this challenge, the federal government decided to cut budget funds to CONAFOR, slashing the organization’s budget from 207.3 to 138.1 million dollars between 2018 and 2021 – a 39 percent reduction in funding. Additionally,

the government eliminated the National Emergency Assistance Fund (Fonden), which had a budget of 343 billion dollars.

The third reason for an epic wildfire year is all of us. According to CONAFOR, the intervention of human beings is a leading cause for wildfires as 90 percent of wildfires are generated by people - unintentional actions and deliberate acts of arson. In March of this year, for example, a family organized an outdoor meal and did not turn off the grill that they used. Their oversight generated a fire that affected more than 12,000 hectares in the Sierra de Arteaga in the states of Nuevo León and Coahuila, very close to the state of Texas in the U.S.

 

Mexico faces two challenges from the growing threat of forest fires.  The first relates to the smoke that is increasingly emanating from all these forest fires and impacting public health. The smoke is especially challenging for those with pre-existing respiratory issues. The second byproduct is how these fires will begin to impact homes and communities that border forests that are at risk of fire.  These abutting areas are called the “wildland-urban interface” or WUI. Everyone, from government agencies to emergency services, to residents, have a role to play in reducing the risk to homes and entire communities in the WUI.

 

NFPA provides many resources for agencies and the public to better understand the threat of wildfire and the preventive methods for reducing risk. Research shows that home destruction is typically the result of embers or small flames igniting something in or around homes in a wildfire area. Embers are burning pieces of airborne wood and vegetation that can be carried more than two kilometers by wind. They are small, but mighty and can cause spot fires, far from the main wildfire, that ultimately ignite homes, debris, and other objects in their path.

History tells us that there are ways that residents can prepare their homes to withstand ember attacks, and minimize the likelihood of flames or surface fire touching  homes or attachments. Residents can reduce the risk that embers pose to their homes in the WUI by performing simple seasonal maintenance projects around the home. Efforts such as clearing away dry vegetation or removing debris from gutters can make a difference. The idea is to protect the area around the home or what is called the “Home Ignition Zone” or HIZ. The HIZ is generally up to 200 feet from the foundation of the house.

NFPA also has many consensus-based standards that provide guidance for wildfire risk reduction, home construction, community development, rural water access for fire services, and proper personal protective equipment for responding firefighters.

Conclusion

In addition to facing the urgency of the moment and the smoke polluting the air, the directors of two main agencies involved, León Jorge Castaño Martínez from CONAFOR, and Laura Velázquez from Federal Civil Protection, must work together to secure more economic resources to fight and prevent fires. The pair must find ways to connect with communities at risk to identify ways that residents can play a part in developing risk reduction solutions. Furthermore, these leaders must convince Congressional members to update and strengthen laws that reduce wildfires because Mexico currently does not have national law or statutes that allow forestry to work with people in the wildland-urban interface.

To minimize wildfire losses in Mexico in the days, weeks, and years ahead – we will need strong leadership, realistic budgets, risk-reduction resources, and a public that is informed and empowered to make incremental changes around their homes and in their communities, just as the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem advises.

You can also read this blog in Spanish.

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Jaime Gutierrez
Jaime Gutierrez
International Development Director for Latin America

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