On her first trip to Bolivia in January, Jane Park hiked about 20 kilometers with national park rangers to a steep, remote area with endangered palm trees and the Andean, or spectacled, bear.
A large part 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 fight fires are extremely remote,” Park said in a recent interview from Banff, Alta.
Park, who is on unpaid leave from his regular job as a fire and vegetation specialist in Banff National Park, is one of two Alberta experts who are spending part of their off-season helping the Bolivian government prepare for an increase in fires in due to climate change.
It is part of Global Affairs Canada’s technical assistance partnership, which allows Canadians from diverse backgrounds to share their expertise in other countries.
Park came across the opportunity online and got the contract, which began with a trip to Bolivia in January to tour five of the country’s protected areas.
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The hike to El Palmar, an integrated nature management area, was the same route park rangers took when the fire started.
“It’s unbelievable,” Park said. “They walk enormous distances. They are local people, they are used to high altitudes and they are extremely fit.
“But if you imagine that even the strongest rangers take several hours to go into a fire, the amount of fire growth that would occur during that time and then the challenges that come with fighting it without aircraft or without decent water sources, it’s all the more challenging.”
Park added that rangers carry portable water bladders and use machetes to fight the fires.
“In Canada, we have easy access to airplanes and water,” she said. “So, there are definitely some interesting and very challenging conditions that people have to work with down there.
“We have to make sure we tailor what we train to their reality.”
Park, who returned to Bolivia this week, said she is helping environmental departments improve their management practices and build capacity to respond to these fires.
“It’s everything from prevention, suppression, wildfire management, communication, monitoring.”
Bolivia’s protected areas have high biodiversity, but forest fires – due to drought and longer fire seasons caused by climate change – have threatened them.
Global Forest Watch says the country lost 1.6 million hectares of tree cover to fires from 2001 to 2021. Some studies have shown that forest fires are one of the biggest threats to endangered and threatened bird species.
As the fires get longer, bigger and more frequent, Park said more agencies are helping the park service — whether it’s community volunteers, fire departments or the military.
“The park rangers, being the most experienced, have to lead these people who may be less experienced,” Park said. “They lack additional training in how to manage resources and lead people who may not have the same experience as them.”
As Park helps train these rangers, another Alberta expert works with the Bolivian military.
Mike May, a senior wildfire specialist, said the military formed a task force that includes members of the army, navy and air force to respond to emergencies in areas such as the Bolivian Amazon.
May, who signed her contract as a “side hustle” alongside her regular job, also visited Bolivia for a week in January to conduct a needs analysis and is due to return this month to provide the training.
“There’s not a lot of funding available to them,” he said in an interview from Hinton, Alta. “They have some tools — maybe not to the extent that we in Canada have. We’re lucky up here.”
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May, who has previously provided his expertise in South Africa and Australia, said he will train a group of military personnel who will then train the 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 a need for some agency-wide training, which they will also provide.
“It’s always unique and fascinating to be able to go to different agencies and jurisdictions to see how they deal with wildfires,” May said. “I have no doubt that I will be able to take some good lessons home from Bolivia.”
He said he feels fortunate to have the opportunity and offer his expertise.
“We’re Canadians,” May added, “and we just want to help people.”
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