I walk along a path bordered by small ferns that are almost phosphorescent green. With the latest rains, the leaves have slowly returned to the trees, which sway lazily overhead.
The narrow path runs through the dry forest of the Lomas Barbudal Biological Reserve, in Bagaces. Life blossoms in every corner from the entrance of the reserve, a few meters back, where two Jurassic-sized iguanas were fighting over a piece of fruit, and several agoutis and a coati snooped around the ranger station’s compost bin with curiosity.
Today is a muggy day in August that is only eased by the forest’s shade. At first glance, it seems that nothing bad has happened in Lomas Barbudal, but the water falling during the rainy months hasn’t just washed away the destruction left by the fires of the dry season.
On March 1, a fire that started outside the reserve caused “the largest incident handled at both the provincial and national levels,” according to the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC for the Spanish acronym).
The province’s forests have been resilient and, year after year, they try to regenerate what has been taken from them as best as they can, but after the last fire, there are sectors in Lomas Barbudal that haven’t been able to recover.
A “Devastating” Fire
I’m not walking alone on this path. In front of me, the administrator of the biological reserve, Priscila Carbonell, walks in silence. The area we are looking for is several hundred meters away and to get there, we have to walk along the banks of a river with turbid turquoise blue water.
The official was one of 1,073 people who participated in responding to forest fires in the province. Last year, there were 24 fires in the dry season between December and May, but this year, the number almost tripled, reaching 89.
The Lomas Barbudal fire devoured half of the reserve. Of its 3,200 hectares (about 7900 acres), 1,645 (4065 acres) were turned to ashes. This incident represents 55.8% of the total protected wildlife areas (ASP for the Spanish acronym) affected in the Chorotega region. The amount of affected area within this region’s ASPs is the largest in the last five years.
“The feeling is devastating. It really makes me very sad to see how the forest burns and to know that you can’t do anything because sometimes your strength gives out,” says Carbonell.
How the Lomas Barbudal fire started isn’t known with certainty. All they know is that it started on a nearby farm that was saved from the fire by its owners, along with reserve officials, just a couple of weeks earlier.
When Carbonell tells me that we’re here, I don’t immediately perceive the catastrophe that happened a few months ago, until she points out what I should look at and I just begin to see the problem.
Where There Was Fire, Consequences Remain
A web of dead vines and small, dry trees extends into the forest as far as the eye can see.
“There are many young trees that have had a hard time recovering, which had been growing as a result of past reforestation projects that had taken place in the reserve,” explains the official.
This year’s fire burned sectors of the reserve that had been untouched by fire for a long time. Beyond the visible and immediate impacts, the park ranger is concerned about the long-term consequences of these fires.
One of these impacts is loss of the forest’s genetic variability. Carbonell explains that if trees with good genes die and don’t reproduce, the forest is likely to become more uniform.
“So what’s going to happen? This forest might turn into a savannah or a desert because it’s not going to have a way of surviving anymore,” she adds.
Another point that Carbonell is worried about is deterioration of the soil. As she explains, fires produce a layer of ash on the ground that gradually makes it impenetrable. Long-term effects could leave soils eroded and compacted, making it more difficult for water to infiltrate.
These problems don’t stay within the perimeter of the Lomas Barbudal Reserve. The park ranger affirmed that after a fire, water retention in the soil worsens, which causes eroded and unproductive farmlands.
We’ll also perceive the consequences outside the forest. By reducing the forest cover that regulates the environmental temperature, Guanacaste will begin to experience more intense heat.
Carbonell and I start making our way back to the park ranger station and pass by a pool, which supplies water to the neighboring community of San Ramon of Bagaces. The river that we have to follow again is fed by several springs of water from the reserve, which is why it never dries up, not even in the summer months.
Protected areas are not islands. A forest fire isn’t just affecting the farmer or the park rangers; rather, it’s affecting the entire population,” the official points out with some frustration.
SINAC data determined that of the 89 forest fires in the province, 54% were caused by vandalism, revenge and hunting activities and 28.7% by agricultural and pasture burning. The remaining percentage corresponded to trash burning (5.6%), reigniting fires and bonfires (both with 4.7%) and land use change (burning of land for other activities with 2.3%).
This means that human actions cause 99% of the fires. The solution to the fires depends entirely on the communities and agricultural production, so Carbonell expects them to do their part. She is very clear about her role and that of the forest.
“You have to understand the forest because it’s also going to look for a way to recover. Then as a park ranger, you have to think, how are you going to help that balance to return?” says Carbonell.
Back at the beginning of the trail, we come to the intersection that divides the path to the pool from the one to the waterfall. In the center, there is a sign that warns “WE CONSERVE LAST REMNANTS OF MESOAMERICAN DRY TROPICAL FOREST.”