By Sophie Hares
TEPIC, Mexico, Feb 20 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A mix of high-tech satellite data and brightly coloured cartoons is helping subsistence farmers around Riberalta in Bolivia's northern Amazon pick the best time to burn off their land and reduce the risk of uncontrolled blazes, as persistent drought makes wildfires a hot issue in Latin America.
"Fire is a real problem with these communities - it's something they're very concerned about," said Veronica Ibarnegaray, programme director at Bolivia's Fundacion Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN - Friends of Nature Foundation), explaining that slash-and-burn farming for crops and cattle is largely to blame.
To let indigenous farmers know whether hot, dry or windy conditions could fan their fires out of control, threatening livelihoods and ecologically sensitive areas, fire monitors check local conditions with hand-held weather meters before adjusting colour-coded signs showing the risk level, she said.
The foundation, which has developed its own early warning system combining NASA satellite and weather data, distributes burning calendars and pamphlets illustrated with cartoons showing farmers what precautions they should take to keep fires under control.
It is also training local communities to become first-response fire fighters after running a similar project in Bolivia's eastern Chiquitania region.
Following a spate of recent fires in Bolivia, Peru and Argentina, alongside deadly blazes in Chile, experts are calling for a greater focus on fire education and alerting systems to limit wildfires, which are widely expected to increase as pressure grows on land and climate change brings warmer conditions.
"When the fire weather is so bad and the fuels are so dry, nobody can put them out," said Amber Soja, a NASA scientist who works with Conservation International on fire detection and risk forecasting. "No matter how technical and advanced you are, you can't throw enough money at them to extinguish them."
In drought-hit Peru, thousands of hectares of land were scorched in fires late last year, including forests, farmland and protected areas known for their biodiversity and rare animals, while fires have also flared in Bolivia which has suffered its worst drought in 25 years.
Tinderbox conditions caused by a near-decade long drought, high temperatures and strong winds led to the fires that recently ripped through Chile, killing 11 people, destroying 1,500 homes and costing the government $333 million in damages and the forestry industry around $350 million.
"The fires here are all caused directly or indirectly by man, so the first job we need to do is environmental education," said Roberto Garfias Salinas, forestry engineer at the University of Chile.
Experts say Chile requires increased resources to tackle blazes, combined with comprehensive fire education and tighter measures to control arson, blamed for starting some blazes.
Garfias said more firebreaks were needed to stop fires running out of control, while Chile's Green Ecologist Party has called for a kilometre-wide boundary between populated areas and the vast industrial plantations that have replaced native forests, to try and limit damage.
In Peru and Bolivia, where farmers use fire as a cheap way to clear land and remove plagues of insects and snakes, experts say better coordination, faster reaction times and wider use of early warning systems could help prevent blazes spiralling out of control.
Some argue that simply suppressing fires now will lead to bigger blazes in years to come, arguing that more emphasis should be placed on using controlled burning to remove debris that could fuel future fires.
Low-intensity fires can help regenerate soil, but bigger blazes can cause serious soil damage and erosion, which in turn may lead to flash floods and impact water supplies. Choking air pollution from clouds of smoke can also cause serious health problems.
"A lot of the time, fire is used for agricultural management - burning resets everything and can enrich the soil too," said Karyn Tabor, early warning systems director at Conservation International which provided fire risk data to Bolivia's FAN before it developed its own model.
But those using the method need to be knowledgeable about how to do so, "and that's a huge issue", she said.
Although forests in some regions have adapted to fire and sometimes even need it to renew themselves, many parts of Latin America do not have this natural resistance, so damage can be devastating and permanently change the landscape, experts say.
Ernesto Ráez-Luna, one of a team of scientists who last year warned governments in Brazil, Peru and Bolivia of the fire risk in drought-hit regions, said no forest eco-system in the tropical Andes was adapted to fire.
"If you burn a forest in Latin America... all you'll end up is with a savannah or grassland," said Ráez-Luna, a professor at Peru's Antonio Ruiz de Montoya University.
There is little comprehensive data on the number of wildfires around the world each year, but experts predict longer, more intense fire seasons as climate change exacerbates weather variability.
Several years of wet weather that allows vegetation to flourish, followed by periods of drought and high temperatures create the perfect "boom-bust" conditions as plants dry out leaving plenty of fuel for fires to consume, said Timothy Ingalsbee, co-director of the Association for Fire Ecology.
"It's these changes in fires that are really going to hit home to people that climate change is real and it's happening," he said.
(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)