As Costa Rica celebrated International Earth Day this week, firefighters in the northwest province of Guanacaste were stepping through the smoldering remains of what nine days earlier had been tropical dry forest in the Santa Rosa National Park.
The blaze, which was extinguished a week ago after burning for four days, scorched nearly 900 hectares (about 2,200 acres) of forest that had been regenerated from ranch pasture.
Santa Rosa National Park, once an enormous hacienda and home to important historical battles, covers 38,674 hectares.
“This is years of work that has been affected, that has been burned down,” said Luis Diego Román, coordinator of the National Fire Management Program, an office of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE).
“Now plagues or diseases can easily enter the area and kill more trees.”
Firefighters were patrolling the burned areas and watching for hot spots over the weekend. This week, they began measuring the damage using satellite global positioning system (GPS) points.
Cristhian Monge, who heads up a 48-person volunteer firefighting brigade for the Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas (ASVO), was onsite for the Santa Rosa blaze, commanding 12 volunteer firefighters. Two from his brigade were there this week, and another group prepared to enter the area this weekend.
“The terrain was very difficult. It was several kilometers on foot to where the work was,” Monge said. As his crew battled to remove possible fuel, such as bushes and dead trees from the perimeter of the fire, they also fought against dehydration, he recounted.
“But one of the hardest things was to see an ecosystem of dry tropical forest so affected,” he said. “In all the Central American region, this is one of the few forests of this type that are left.”
Officials believe this fire, like most wildfires in Costa Rica, was caused by humans. And they believe it was set in revenge.
“We have our suspicions,” Román said.
The blaze, which was first detected in an area of the park known as Portón de Los Perros, began at six separate points. Horse tracks were found near where some of the fires began, Román said, noting that horses are not allowed in the park.
Officials suspect the fire was set by a poacher whom park guards surprised in January, seizing his weapons and the animals he had killed, Román continued.
The Santa Rosa fire is the 29th this year, the forest fire chief said. Of those, 23 have been inside protected areas such as national parks or wildlife refuges.
“The majority of the causes are produced by humans, whether it’s vandalism, vengeance or agricultural burning,” he said. “Or sometimes it’s to distract the attention of the park guards.”
The vast majority of forests plagued by fires this year have been inside protected areas. The blazes have charred a total of 4,400 hectares (10,900 acres) so far this year, of which 3,800 hectares were protected land, according to Román.
This is a drop from last year, when 90 forest fires burned 32,000 hectares. Of those, 54 fires were inside protected areas.
This year’s largest fire occurred within the Palo Verde National Park, also in Guanacaste, where 1,500 hectares of wetlands burned. Last year’s largest fire covered 2,000 hectares inside the GuanacasteNational Park.
According to Román, both fires were also believed to have been caused intentionally. Monge said he believes about 90% of fires were set on purpose.
“They enter before dawn by horse and leave small fires, normally using fuel,” he said. “As the day continues and heats up, the small fires become big.”