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Colombia Declares Emergency Over Forest Fires

Flames rise from a forest during a wildfire in Bogota, Colombia, on Jan. 24, 2024.
Flames rise from a forest during a wildfire in Bogota, Colombia, on Jan. 24, 2024.

Colombia has declared a state of emergency in two regions as dozens of forest fires burned wide swaths of the country and left the capital choking on smoke during record temperatures linked with the El Nino weather phenomenon.

Colombia has extinguished hundreds of fires this month, but 25 continue to burn, according to data from the National Disaster Risk Management Unit (UNGRD) on Wednesday.

In the departments of Santander and Cundinamarca, where the capital, Bogota, is located, the fires have consumed about 600 hectares of forest and states of emergency were declared.

The emergency measures free up funds to "quickly address the negative impact on the department's natural resources," said Cundinamarca Governor Jorge Emilio Rey.

More than half of the country's municipalities are on red alert over the fire threat, with the areas around the capital hit hard.

Columns of white smoke billowed from the mountains surrounding Bogota on Wednesday, with people in the commercial district seen masking up against the thick haze and ash.

"Because of the burning of the hills, all the smoke is coming to this side, and it is affecting us a lot," said 62-year-old driver Hector Rafael Escudero.

President Gustavo Petro said global warming was aggravating the El Nino weather, a phenomenon typically associated with increased temperatures worldwide, drought in some parts of the world and heavy rains elsewhere.

"This may be the hottest year in the history of mankind," he said, calling on "every mayor, every governor and the national government" to prioritize water supplies.

Nine towns in the north, center and east of Colombia posted record temperatures Tuesday of up to 40.4 degrees Celsius.

In Bogota, a voracious blaze has engulfed the mountains to the west of the city since Monday and wild animals have been spotted sheltering in built-up areas. These creatures include coatis, porcupines, birds and frogs, authorities said.

Members of the Colombian Army and volunteers were deployed with hoes, rakes and machetes to clear unburned brush from the sloping hills surrounding the capital as water-ferrying helicopters buzzed overhead.

"Some areas have already been affected by the fire and some vegetation has not yet been consumed. What we are doing is trying to divide the burned areas from the unburned ones to prevent the fire from continuing to spread," said Daniel Trujillo, a 23-year-old Colombian Civil Defense volunteer.

Gustavo Andres Betancourt, a member of the Colombian army, described challenging conditions.

"Some hotspots are still active. They are being contained, but at night, due to the high altitude and the winds, they start up again, creating new fires," he said.

Authorities have warned of a "significant deterioration" in air quality in the city of about 8 million people.

One of the world's most biodiverse countries, Colombia has for months been suffering from record-high temperatures and drought conditions in the southern hemisphere winter, as climate change wreaks havoc.

These conditions are expected to last through June, forecasters have said.