US Providing Aid to Battle Central American Wildfires

As the dangerously dry spring sparks more fires, US offers technology and advice to southern neighbors.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As fires rage south of the border, and smoke clouds drift as far north as Chicago, the United States is sending expertise and equipment to help bring Central America's wildfires under control.

The $5 million of aid, in the form of US helicopters, communications technology, and advisers, comes at the request of the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Costa Rica, where the worst wildfires in a century have scorched nearly 1 million acres of land and claimed 50 lives this year. A dry spring, blamed on the weather phenomenon called El Nino, has made traditional slash-and-burn agricultural techniques especially dangerous.

"No one anticipated El Nino," says Roy Williams, a fire disaster coordinator for the US Agency for International Development in Washington. "In the past, all of that undergrowth would be saturated with water" from the spring rains. "This year, the undergrowth is dry.... if rains don't come soon, we could be seeing fires for a while."

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Smoke from the fires has been reported in Denver, Chicago, and even South Carolina. The smoke has been densest in south and east Texas, where southerly winds have brought soot that has blotted out the sun for nearly three weeks.

Dry season

"South Texas has received the largest amount of the smoke, compared with the other states and parts of Texas," says Terry Hadley, spokesman for the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission in Austin, adding that the state has issued air-quality alerts continuously since May 12. Until the fires are put out, the only things that could clear the air are a change of wind direction or a little rain. "Rain literally washes away the smoke, but we haven't had any to speak of for a while."

Indeed, the same dry conditions that have troubled Mexico and other nations are starting to take hold across the Southwest. Texas, for instance, has received less than an inch of rain in May, usually one of the rainiest months of the year.

"Our wildfire danger is very high," says Jo Schweikhard Moss of the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Wildfires have already consumed more than 60,000 acres in Presidio County in west Texas.

Helping a neighbor

Among the items requested by Mexico and her southern neighbors are the standard gear of firefighting. "It's mostly backpacks, boots ... and hand-held radios," says Mr. Williams. "In rural areas, firefighting is more dependent on communication. And if you don't have radios establishing communication between people on the ground and between different areas, it's harder to bring these fires under control."

Indeed, communication is so important that most of the advisers from the US were chosen because of their knowledge of fire tactics and "incident command systems," the same emergency techniques used to control fires in the US mountain states. Among these US advisers are two Texans, Marty Martinez and Charles Walker of the Texas Forest Service, who provided tactical assistance to the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon to fight wildfires in April, only to return to the southern Mexican state of Chiapas this week.

"The Mexican fires affect all of us," says James Hull, director of the Texas Forest Service in Austin, noting that five days after Mr. Martinez and Mr. Walker arrived on the scene, the Nuevo Leon fires were out. "We are working to suppress the fires and to relieve the smoke and haze over our state."

While the US has provided helicopters - from the US Army Southern Command in Panama and the Alabama National Guard - to drop water on fires in Guatemala and Mexico, most US personnel are taking advisory roles. In addition, the Central American governments have not asked for, nor has Washington encouraged, US volunteer firefighters to help.

"The Mexicans have plenty of people, just not the proper equipment," says Ms. Moss of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

For residents in the US, meanwhile, the fires are providing a vivid reminder of how close its southern neighbors are.

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