Two people have died after a firefighting helicopter went down Wednesday morning near the town of Aluminé in Neuquén Province.
The two individuals, identified only as the pilot and mechanic of the aircraft, have not been named, though it is understood that they were recruited by the provincial government to join the battle against raging flames in Patagonia.
Aluminé Mayor Gabriel Álamo confirmed to a local radio station that the incident had taken place at around 11am, with the helicopter exploding upon impact as it hit the ground. He said that members of the security forces were at the scene to identify the victims.
"The accident occurred when the winds began to intensify and complicate the advance of the flames," said Álamo.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation and it has not been confirmed whether it was due to weather conditions, mechanical failure or human error.
Environment & Sustainable Development Minister Juan Cabandié said in a post on Twitter that he greatly regretted the deaths.
“With great sadness, we regret the death of the crew of the helicopter that fell this morning,” he wrote. “We accompany their families in pain, their co-workers and the personnel who continue to work in the region.”
Aluminé is just one of several regions hit by raging forest fires in Argentina. For the past month, fFlames have engulfed areas in Neuquén, Río Negro and Chubut in the south, where thousands of hectares of native forest have been destroyed.
Active outbreaks are now located in seven provinces, the Servicio Nacional del Manejo de Fuego (National Fire Management Service, SNMF) said on Tuesday, adding the more northerly regions of Santa Fe, San Luis, Formosa and Misiones to its list.
Drought, high temperatures and shifting winds are hampering efforts to control the fires, which began in early December and have multiplied with scattered outbreaks. More than 300 firefighters are currently engaged in battling the flames, supported by 17 aircraft.
Underlining the severity of the issue, the SNMF said in a statement that throughout 2021 to date, some 302,451 hectares have been burnt – an area larger than the size of Hong Kong. On Tuesday, Argentina's Federal Environment Council (Cofema) and the Environment Ministry declared a 12-month fire emergency throughout the country, citing the "extreme risk" of forest and grassland fires and adverse weather conditions.
"Cofema declared a state of fire emergency throughout the national territory," the Environment Ministry said in a statement issued Tuesday after an urgent meeting.
Officials from the Council and the Ministry "held a remote meeting in which a fire emergency was declared throughout the national territory for a period of 12 months due to the extreme risk of forest and grassland fires," it continued.
Focus on prevention
Environmental Control and Monitoring Secretary Sergio Federovisky told the Télam state news agency that the outbreaks could be a sign of things to come.
"Most likely, as a result of climate change, fire seasons may occur throughout the year, a situation that implies a very different approach from the one we have been taking until now," warned Federovisky.
The official argued that it was now necessary to ”work with a different and deeper emphasis on prevention,” while praising the “colossal efforts” made by firefighters.
“Policies to combat fire in adverse weather situations and with so much combustible material on the ground, are inefficient beyond all the resources available to them,” he added.
– TIMES with agencies