Argentina’s politicians pointed the finger on Friday as relentless fires continued to ravage Corrientes Province, with officials now confirming that more than 600,000 hectares of land has been destroyed by flames – close to seven percent of the region’s territory.
Forest fires are sweeping the northeastern province on an unprecedented scale, causing heavy economic losses and serious environmental damage, according to government officials, farmers and environmentalists.
Experts warn the environmental damage left by the fires will be incalculable, especially its impact on the flora and fauna of the littoral province.
The health of the region’s native animals has also sparked concern, with images going viral on social networks on Friday of caimans fleeing the flames. A second video, showing a disorientated puma in dry pastures, also drew considerable attention.
"More than 600,000 hectares have been burned, and there are not enough personnel. We have hydrant planes and helicopters, but we can't keep up," Daniel Bertorello, the commander of the provincial capital's volunteer fire brigade, told the Reuters news agency on Friday.
The fires “are burning at a rate of 20,000 hectares per day, now there must be a total of 700,000 hectares,” said Nicolas Carlino of the Coninagro producers' association on Tuesday.
“The smoke has been making it difficult for satellites to observe [and measure] for a week. There is no historical precedent," he added.
The organisation estimated on Tuesday that fields of yerba mate worth at least US$4.2 million (official exchange rate) have been destroyed, along with US$44.6 million of rice crops. At least 70,000 heads of cattle have been killed, it added.
The National Fire Management Service on Friday reported at least 20 active outbreaks in areas including Curuzú Cuatiá, Concepción, San Miguel, Ituzaingó, Santo Tomé, Loreto and Bella Vista.
On Friday, Corrientes Province Governor Gustavo Valdés used an interview to appeal for extra help from provincial and national governments.
“Corrientes needs extraordinary help to get out of this hell," the UCR governor, aligned with Argentina’s main opposition coalition, told the TN news channel.
In recent weeks, Valdés has clashed repeatedly with Environment & Sustainable Development Minister Juan Cabandié over what he perceives as a lack of assistance from the national government and the latter’s trip to Barbados earlier this month for talks on climate change.
Responding to criticism from former president Mauricio Macri, among others, Cabandié said Friday that the governor had “acknowledged that it had been late” in asking for help.
"Since January 23 we have been offering resources and human resources to Corrientes and the request for help from the province was sent on February 5. Therefore, we are responsible and very dedicated in these matters that concern our Ministry with all the provinces," Cabandié told the LN+ news channel.
He also suggested the provincial government should do more to search for those responsible for the flames, saying 90 percent of outbreaks are the result of people, whether intentional or just a case of "carelessness."
Defending Valdés, Macri said in a post on Twitter that provincial authorities had notified the national government of the fires back in January, to no avail.
“They asked for hydrant planes, lookouts and equipment. They never responded," the former president claimed on Twitter.
"Now, in the midst of the flames, the entire production chain of the province is facing a very serious crisis that could devastate its economy. The consequences for wildlife and the environment are immeasurable. I share the anguish, anger and pain caused by this situation," added the former president.
According to the national government, four hydrant planes, two helicopters and a hundred brigadiers have been sent to Corrientes, with support from the Army and the Air Force already deployed.
Civil defence units and local firefighters, with the help of local people and producers, have been battling the flames for weeks, with more than 3,800 people in total engaged in fire-fighting efforts.
The drought in Corrientes began in mid-November, according to officials, with fires starting in December.
Corrientes Province, located between the Paraná and Uruguay rivers, is currently recording rainfall of less than 10 to 15 millimetres (the average for the season is up to 200 millimetres) and a relative humidity of 15 percent, when the usual would be around 70 percent, Carlino said.
The fires are also affecting the Iberá marshes, an area of 12,000 square kilometres of marshes and lagoons that is home to caimans, amphibians, ophidians, iguanas and 350 species of birds, local ecologist Luis Martínez told the AFP news agency.
"It is a severe impact, caused by deforestation, desertification and poor land use, which is now combined with a new rainfall regime caused by climate change," Martínez said.
He attributes the fires to the "imprudence" of individuals that burn pastures to renew the land or even to control possible fires.
"There are no natural fires, as the firefighters and locals say," he said.
Corrientes has already lost 60 percent of its wetlands, 40 percent of its grasslands and some 23,000 hectares of native forests, Martínez estimated.
The vast majority of wild animals will be affected in some way and some species of birds and reptiles will be on the verge of extinction as a result of the crisis, he said.