Wildfires and Climate Emergency in Bogota

Clouds of smoke have raised over the city sky due to the wildfires that spurred in Bogota’s eastern mountains during the past week. As several areas from the Cerros Orientales burn, and winds blow strongly during day and night, smoke and ashes expand through the whole city worsening the already poor air quality. With record temperatures over  24 °C (75.2 °F) during the day, increased air pollution, drought, and fires, the climate emergency has become pretty real in Bogota. Experiencing it, is quite shocking, dramatic. It impacts all our human senses triggering a feeling of concern, frustration, and solidarity. This was the first time I confronted such kind of emergency in the city and felt helpless. The wildfires sent an alarm, a call to action we could no longer ignore. We need to take care of our urban environment, including the wildlife and nature surroundings, which are also part of the city ecosystem.

Seeing, smelling, and tasting the smoke and ashes of wildfires can be quite intense. Out on the streets and inside our apartment in Chapinero neighborhood we experience the wildfires of the nearby hills of Quebrada la Vieja, and The Cable. During the day we saw long smoke fumes coming from the top of the mountains as if the hills were volcanos, raising over the sky and forming huge white and dark clouds. During the night, the flames appeared as red and orange lanterns, blinking in the deep dark forest. The smell of scorch penetrated the buildings and expanded through the streets, while the small ashes formed a sort of grayish mist. We felt as if we were next to chimney, a bon fire, a massive fire stove. Breathing was difficult, and the feeling at the end of the day was of being a bit ill, with congestion in the respiratory system.

Wildfires at La Vieja hill seeing from 69th street

Hearing the wildfires it is also intense. Although we did not hear the direct sound of burning from our neighborhood, we heard other sounds associated with it. The sound of helicopters disrupted mornings and afternoons, as they crossed the sky carrying huge buckets of water. Fire truck sirens also sounded on the streets sporadically, and less frequently. Due to the location of the fires on the top of the mountains, the only way to approach them was by air or by foot. Teams of firemen, soldiers and other volunteers had to hike the mountains in order to get closer to the wildfire sites.

During the dawn, the bird chorus increased its loudness, perhaps due to the migration of several birds that escaped the fires and have joined the collective twittering. The Cerros Orientales are home of a range of wild animals, specially a great variety of birds (more than 200) which perhaps have been displaced by the flames as their homes have been burnt. They have probably looked for shelter in the urban parks and trees. The dawn chorus in our neighborhood, usually dominated by mirlas‘s singing has incorporated other wild birds’ chirps and songs. However, I have not heard the unique percussive and high frequency sound that humming birds make, and that one can hear very loud when hiking the eastern hills. I worry about the myriad of humming birds that inhabit those hills, and that have made the top of the eucalyptus trees one of their favorite places for nesting. Where did the humming birds go?

Our human bodies can also touch some of the tiny particles generated by the fires. As the forests burn, their ashes travel fast filling the air we breath. The particles in the air, usually imperceptible, become more visible and touchable. Last Monday when I was riding my bicycle at night through the the 7th avenue, on my way back from Javeriana University, I felt the ashes and dust on my skin and my eyes. Those tiny particles hit my face. I felt sore on my eyes, irritation and could not keep them open by the amount of particles that hit me. The wind was also strong, and due to the drought, the feeling was like being in the midst of a dust or sand storm. I arrived home with tears on my eyes, and had to wash my face with water and put some natural drops in my eyes to relieve the sore.

Smoke mist and pollution over Bogota. Seeing from the eastern route to La Calera

Climate emergency is real. We can no longer ignore the alerts and warnings about its presence. The wildfires we are experiencing in Bogota nowadays are an alarm that resonates with declaration of climate emergency the city government issued in 2020. Although such kind of policy was criticized by certain sectors at that moment of time, its efforts to mitigate and adapt to the climate change, taking actions that protect the ecological structure, and support sustainable energy transitions are better understood now, when citizens have to confront and feel the wildfires. The scale of the emergency, goes beyond the local level. During the past days, hundreds of wildfires have also spurred across Colombia, burning forests in national parks, and several paramos, pushing the national government to also declare a state of emergency and ask for international help.

Full moon and fires on El Cable hill, January 24. Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/C2gXK_wOqYy/?hl=es

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