In 2021, Mexico battled its worst wildfire season in more than a decade. Within the first three months of the year, the country recorded 2,871 wildfires, burning 73,459 hectares of land, according to Mexico’s National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR). Some of the worst blazes centred in Nuevo León, the second largest city in Mexico, as well as protected natural areas including the Cumbres de Monterrey National Park. Droughts in Mexico also have a long history, and as dry conditions and rising temperatures persist, the country is bracing for more severe and intense wildfires in the coming years. We take a look at what fuels wildfires in Mexico, the effects of it, and potential solutions and mitigation strategies.
What Causes Wildfires?
Wildfires occur when three conditions are present: flammable material and dry fuel such as leaves, grass, branches, and other organic materials; oxygen in the air; and a heat source to ignite and burn including lightning strikes or human sources such as campfires or cigarettes. But these elements alone are not enough to explain the recent uptick and increased severity of wildfires in the country. There are other factors driving and exacerbating the situation in Mexico.
Drought Conditions and Climate Change
Mexico’s location and climate makes it vulnerable to dry conditions and periods. While droughts and water shortages are common in parts of Mexico, 2021 saw one of its most intense and devastating droughts in decades. At one point during April, nearly 85% of the country was categorised as “dangerously dry”. The National Water Commission (CONAGUA) stated that 1,295 municipalities were experiencing drought conditions, especially in the north, while many dams and reservoirs have dropped to exceptionally low levels. The extreme drought was attributed to scorching temperatures, in which some states in the south recorded an average temperature of 33-36C during March, April and May. The combined factors sparked 6,224 wildfires between January and June of 2021 and became the second most water-stressed country in all Latin America.
Climate change has undeniably played a significant role in the Mexico wildfires of 2021. Global warming is depriving water and drying up vegetation, creating the perfect fuel for fires to burn. It has also changed the nature of wildfire; wildfires seasons are becoming longer, more intense, and spread faster. According to a recent UN report, global wildfires are set to rise by 50% by 2100 and regions that were previously unaffected by wildfires will “very likely to experience a significant increase in burning.” Coupled with extensive deforestation and land conversion, forests and vegetation are losing their ability to retain water, thus making land even more fire-prone.
Additionally, while lightning is a natural phenomenon, climate change is triggering extreme lightning storms. As warmer and longer summers heat up the land surface, along with increase in carbon emissions, causes stronger updrafts that are more likely to produce more powerful and frequent lightning, increasing the overall risk of wildfires.
According to CONAFOR, human activities and deliberate, neglectful actions have been responsible for large portion of wildfires in Mexico. For example, in March of 2021, a grill that was left behind following a family barbecue generated a fire that affected more than 12,000 hectares in the Sierra de Arteaga in the states of Nuevo León and Coahuila. Likewise, discarded cigarette butts and campfires are among the many human-induced wildfires.
Poor Forest and Fire Management
Dry vegetation and forests are key to sparking wildfires, and poor forest management and deforestation regulation have unfortunately exaggerated the scale and severity of fires in Mexico. Agricultural activities have contributed to nearly half of the fires in Mexico and Central America, as well as a general lack of forestry culture – leading to poor agricultural practices of using fire to convert logged forest land into cattle pasture. These type of land clearing method contributes to soil erosion and water runoff, which in turn reduces water absorption, creating the perfect conditions for fires. Rampant deforestation and illegal logging activities with methods like slash-and-burn only adds more fuel to the fire.
The fact that the Mexican federal government has recently decided to cut budget funds to CONAFOR, an important government agency that oversees the conservation and restoration of Mexico’s forests, certainly does not help. In slashing 39% of the organisation’s budget from $207 million to $138 million between 2018 and 2021, as well as eliminating the National Emergency Assistance Fund (Fonden), which had a budget of 343 billion dollars, make conservation and management efforts all the more difficult to mitigate and reduce to risk of wildfires. It also takes away opportunities to prevent unnecessary deaths and the displacement of people and animals.
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Mexico Wildfires Impacts
Wildfires around the world destroy precious and valuable land, displace hundreds of thousands of people, and eliminate entire habitats, not to mention racks up significant financial costs. In Mexico, many homes and communities that border forests have been particularly impacted by the frequency and close proximity of wildfires.
Public health is of the greatest concern in relation to wildfires. With larger and more intense fires, comes suffocating smoke that can spread further and reach more people, affecting especially those with pre-existing respiratory diseases. Some of the worst blazes even led to smoke visible from the neighbouring US state of Florida. Wildfire smoke piles more pollution on the already-poor air quality in Mexico, largely driven by emissions from fossil fuel-powered vehicles and power plants.
Wildfires exacerbated by climate change, also contribute back to global warming from its smoke and greenhouse gas emissions, creating a vicious cycle. The country emitted 804 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) in 2020, contributing about 1.3% of global emissions.
There are other major repercussions too from wildfires, including the loss of forest land and habitat, thereby threatening food security and endangering species. Mexico is home to between 10 and 12% of the world’s species with over 564 species, 30% of which are endemic to the country. Habitat loss and degradation throws the entire ecosystem off balance. Similarly, as Mexico is responsible for 15% of food species in the world today, ranging from corn, beans, avocado, and cocoa, as well as cotton, tobacco, and timber, worsening and more frequent fires adds pressure to the food availability.
There are a multitude of ways in which Mexico can reduce and mitigate wildfires. On the individual level, residents, especially those who live close to forest land, can perform simple seasonal maintenance around their homes such as clearing away dry vegetation or removing debris from gutters. Greater education on basic fire management, including proper disposal of cigarette butts and fire hazardous objects, could greatly minimise the risk of fires.
On the national level, the Mexican federal government should develop and implement greater national forest policies. A report by the US Agency of International Development suggested integrating sustainable forest management, reforestation and restoration, wildfire prevention and control, as well as forest inventory. But to do so, the Mexico president Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his administration need to stop starving the budgets of critical institutions that protect forests from illegal logging such as various governmental environmental agencies and CONAFOR.
Controlled fires of low-intensity outside of wildfire seasons can be highly beneficial ecologically by enabling regrowth, plant species diversity, greater secondary growth, recycling of nutrients, and creation of seed beds.
More importantly, the government should target and take action against large farming industries and criminal cartels that set land on fire in order to speculate in cattle or buildings, on top of greater regulation of deforestation.
As discussed, climate change plays a big role in the growing severity of wildfires in Mexico, reducing and eliminating greenhouse gas emissions is therefore crucial. According to Mexico’s most recent Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC) – where countries outline and report to the UN their climate actions in accordance with the Paris Agreement – the government has set a goal to reduce carbon emissions by at least 22% by 2030. But the lack of a net-zero emissions goal undermines the country’s overall decarbonisation strategy. Only by tackling global warming can the government, and the world, can truly reduce and prevent wildfires.