Costa Rica: En Fuego!

Rome is burning. Except not so much Rome, and definitely Costa Rica. So to rephrase: Costa Rica is burning.

Every day during the week I spent in Costa Rica, fires sprung up everywhere. Not a day passed when the pleasant, smoky smell of a burn didn’t filled the air. But unfortunately, the reality of the situation is not as pleasant as the smell. Especially when the wildfires spread to inhabited structures, as happened to one of the bungalows at my resort. Luckily, nobody was hurt, but let’s just say the visitors had to find another hotel.

Do you think I’m exaggerating? I’m not. Tending toward the low end, I’d estimate seeing three fires each day, and smelling more. Although these fires often had smaller flames than I would expect for a dry area, the smoke trails and charred earth were obvious signs that the damage had been done. Still think I’m exaggerating? Well FINE. Here’s pictorial evidence.
Costa Rica wildfiresCosta Rica wildfireCosta Rica wildfireAnd a video, just for good measure. You can see how far the wildfire spread and that firefighters in the background are trying to stop further advancement. Think it’s weird that they’re using a tractor to extinguish the flames rather than more traditional methods? Keep in mind the severe lack of water during the dry season, and that this video was taken during the height of dry season. Alternative, water-free methods are virtually all they have in some areas.

So why all the fires? As mentioned in the volcano and national park post, Costa Rica has numerous different habitats. While one section might contain a rainforest, just across the way could be a dry forest. That’s right, a dry forest. These were particularly prevalent where I stayed, in the northwestern Guanacaste province. Many fields were brown and trees were bare. The winds make it worse; the area is not breezy, but downright windy. (You can hear it in the video above.) In fact, the shuttle driver at the airport barely spoke English, and when he heard where we were staying, he simply said, “Ohhhhh. Cuidado! The winds!” The winds certainly doesn’t help the fire situation.
Costa Rica dry forest regionCosta Rica dry forest regionCosta Rica dry forest regionCosta Rica dry forest regionMany acres of a national park burned a few weeks before I visited. It happened in early February, and at that time it already was the sixth major wildfire of the year. While it should be obvious to exhibit care with flames during the December through April dry season, apparently it is not. For instance, some campers still lit fires and numerous residents burned their trash in the open. You know, right near dry fields.

The Central American country’s social inequality and a lack of public knowledge or understanding gets blamed for many of the wildfires. Hunters burn brush to scare out animals. Farmers still engage in slash-and-burn agricultural practices. So serious is the problem, in 1997 the government set up a strategy to cut down on agricultural burning, and it set up a national commission on forest fires. There’s also an official fire prevention mascot — Toño the Pizote, which is a raccoon-type animal, also called a coati. Think of it as Costa Rica’s version of a Smokey Bear campaign to teach kids fire safety, and to spread the message that everyone has to work together to save Costa Rica’s resources. He even has his own Twitter and Facebook pages.

Toño Pizote

Toño Pizote (photo via Toño Pizote Facebook page)

Toño Pizote

Toño Pizote (photo via Toño Pizote Facebook page)

More than half of the country’s wildfires occur within protected areas. Tono Pizote’s website claims 46% of Costa Rica’s fires spark because of agricultural burning, 4% are caused by garbage burning and 38% are revenge fires. That’s right, the fire prevention campaigns often focus on revenge fires because there are so many people intentionally setting wildfires in Costa Rica!

Some frustrated lumberjacks, hunters, fishermen and farmers — especially those who have been reprimanded — grow angry at government regulations protecting Costa Rica’s rich wildlife and heritage sites and decide to set them ablaze. They commit acts of arson as a means of waging revenge on the government, and more specifically, the rangers who enforce illegal natural resource use or removal. Sometimes a lack of adequate personal land to support one’s own family drives people to the extreme measures. But in the end, revenge fires merely waste all that beautiful nature that is under protection for all to enjoy. It seems a bit like a frightening “if I can’t have it, nobody can” mentality sometimes exhibited by murderers.

Wow, that’s heavy. Living in a well-off country, I never would have envisioned burning natural resources as a revenge tactic. Who would have thought so many of those fires I witnessed day-in and day-out in Costa Rica were sparked by people unhappy with their positions in life or with the government? It’s frustrating, and it also serves as a reminder that despite its reputation as a tourist haven, Costa Rica still is not as developed as some of the other countries in relatively close proximity. Although wildfire education campaigns have been in the works for decades, clearly more needs to be done to save the country’s beautiful natural habitats and the animals it shelters. Because this beautiful land is a terrible thing to waste.
Costa Rica landscape

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2 thoughts on “Costa Rica: En Fuego!

  1. This makes me sad about such a beautiful country with so many natural resources- annoys me as much as the Republicans deciding to sell public land- Not what Theodore Roosevelt had in mind…..mil

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    • It makes me sad too. Costa Rica is so beautiful and has so much to offer, but unfortunately some people try to ruin it. I hope the educational efforts gain steam and expand, and that they are successful in reducing the number of wildfires, especially the revenge fires.

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