Wildfires cause huge loss of life in Chile amid heatwaves in South America

05 February 2024

Devastating wildfires have caused dozens of casualties in Chile , prompting a state of emergency and a massive rescue operation. The disaster occurred as Chile and other parts of South America are gripped by intense heatwaves fueled by El Niño and exacerbated by climate change.

The Chilean government declared a state of emergency and a period of national mourning. More than 100 people were reportedly killed and the death toll was expected to rise further as rescuers sought to reach worst hit areas in the Valparaíso region, including around the coastal town of Viña del Mar.

Chilean authorities issued a number of top-level red alerts of the fire risk due to elevated temperatures, dry soils and strong winds. Chile’s National Meteorological and Hydrological Service also issued heat red-alerts, in line with the Early Warnings for All campaign.

El Niño

Climate impacts and extreme events usually associated with naturally occurring phenomena, such as heatwaves and drought, are stronger this southern hemisphere summer due to the combination of a strong El Niño and the long-term increase of land and sea temperatures due to human-induced climate change.

“Due to the influence of El Niño, it is expected that the summer season in the region may register maximum temperatures that are above normal values for the season,” said Bárbara Tapia Cortés of WMO’s Regional Office for the Americas.

“It is worth remembering that we are emerging from 2023, which was the hottest year ever recorded. It is likely that the warming effect of the current El Niño episode will intensify the heat even more during 2024. This will cause more extreme weather events that ruin lives and and destroy livelihoods,” she said.

El Niño occurs on average every two to seven years, and episodes typically last nine to 12 months. It is a naturally occurring climate pattern associated with warming of the ocean surface temperatures in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. But it takes place in the context of a climate changed by human activities.

“Recent El Niño events, including this one, are being created from an ocean that is already warmer. It is as if you had a tub with hot water and you put more hot water in it, rather than a tub with warm water and you put hot water in it, “ said Ms Tapia Cortés. 

Temperatures and fire weather danger

The fires come as many countries in South America – including Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia – see persistent heatwaves and many station temperature records.

In Santiago de Chile, the mercury hit 37.3°C on 31 January, the third highest recorded temperature in 112 years.

In Colombia, where the government declared the forest fires the country is currently fighting a natural disaster, several municipalities also saw record temperatures. This included 40.4°C in Jerusalén.

Argentina was gripped by a persistent heatwave from 21 to 31 January, with the heat continuing into February and widespread top-level red heat alerts.

The extremely high fire weather danger in last few days in central Chile (see the 03-Feb-2024 Fire Weather Index ranking from the Global Wildfire Information System below) including Valparaíso region, reflected not only the very high temperatures but also the very low humidity and long severe drought. These conditions, together with strong winds, are highly favourable to the development of catastrophic wildfires.

A screen shot of a map showing a map of chile.
Global Wildfire Information System

Heat-Health

High temperatures pose a risk to people's health. Between 2000 and 2019, an estimated 489,000 people globally died per year – with the elderly and other vulnerable groups most at risk.

WMO is a co-sponsor of the Global Heat Health Information Network, which works to improve capacity to protect populations from the avoidable health risks of extreme heat in our changing climate.

Early warning systems allow the population, subnational governments and civil society organizations to be alerted of periods of unusually hot temperatures so that they can be better prepared to cope with high temperatures.

In the medium term, it is advisable to develop a Heat Action Plan in order to measure and reduce vulnerability to heat.

Thus, Argentina’s National Meteorological Service, SNM, developed an Early Warning System for Extreme Temperatures (SAT-TE in Spanish). Under this system, SNM issues alerts for high temperatures and heatwaves and the Ministry of Health issues recommendations for health care.