Alberta wildfire experts in Bolivia to help with training and fire prevention

On her first trip to Bolivia in January, Jane Park hiked about 20 kilometers with national park rangers to a steep, isolated area with endangered palm trees and the Andean, or spectacled, bear.

Much of the ANMI-El Palmar area, one of the country’s protected areas, had been burned in a forest fire.

“A lot of the areas where they’re fighting fires are extremely remote,” Park said in a recent interview from Banff, Alta.

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Park, who is on unpaid leave from her regular job as a fire and vegetation specialist in Banff National Park, is one of two Alberta experts who spend part of their off-season helping the Bolivian government prepare for an increase in fires due to climate change.

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This is part of Global Affairs Canada’s technical assistance partnership, which allows Canadians from different backgrounds to share their expertise in other countries.

Park took the opportunity online and secured the contract, which began with the trip to Bolivia in January to visit five of the country’s protected areas.

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The hike to El Palmar, an integrated management natural area, was the same route park rangers had taken when the fire broke out.

“It’s amazing,” Park said. “They travel huge distances. They are locals, they are used to high altitudes and they are extremely fit.

“But if you imagine that even the fittest rangers take many hours to walk through a fire, the amount of fire growth that would occur during that time, and then the challenges that come with combat without aircraft or without decent water sources , that’s all the hardest part.

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Park said rangers carried portable water bags and used machetes to fight fires.

“In Canada, we have easy access to planes and water,” she said. “So there are certainly some interesting and very difficult conditions that people have to work with there.

“We have to make sure that we adapt what we train to their reality.”

Park, who returned to Bolivia this week, said she was helping environment departments improve management practices and build capacity to respond to those fires.

“It’s everything from prevention, suppression, wildfire management, communication, monitoring.”

Bolivia’s protected areas have high biodiversity, but wildfires – due to drought and longer fire seasons caused by climate change – have threatened them.

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Global Forest Watch says the country lost 1.6 million hectares of tree cover in fires from 2001 to 2021. Some studies have shown that these forest fires are one of the greatest threats to bird species. endangered and threatened.

As the fires get longer, bigger and more frequent, Park said more and more agencies are helping the park service — whether community volunteers, firefighters or the military.

“Park rangers, because they’re the most experienced, end up having to lead these people who may be less experienced,” Park said. “They lack additional training on how to lead resources and lead people who may not have the same level of experience as them.”

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While Park helps train these rangers, another expert from Alberta works with the Bolivian military.

Mike May, a senior wildfire specialist, said the military formed a task force including members of the Army, Navy and Air Force to respond to emergencies in areas such as the Bolivian Amazon.

May, who signed his contract as a ‘side hustle’ in addition to his regular job, also traveled to Bolivia for a week in January to do a needs analysis and is due back this month to deliver the training .

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“There’s not a lot of funding available for them,” he said in an interview in Hinton, Alta. “They have tools — maybe not as much as we do in Canada. We are very lucky here.

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May, who has previously provided his expertise in South Africa and Australia, said he needed to train a group of military personnel to then train frontline soldiers to help fight the fires.

“‘The hope is…to get them on the right track so they can build their wildfire program within the military,” he said.

May said he and Park recognized the need for interagency training, which they would also provide.

“It’s always unique and fascinating to be able to travel to different agencies and jurisdictions to see how they deal with wildfires,” May said. “I have no doubt that I will be able to bring home some good lessons from Bolivia.”

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He said he felt lucky to have the opportunity and to offer his expertise.

“We’re Canadian,” added May, “and we just want to help people.

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