Travel

This Beautiful Region of Patagonia Was Devastated By Wildfires This Month

Here’s how you can help.

Rio Azul in Chubut, Argentina, is within three miles of the region’s worst wildfires. | ATicuS/Moment Open/Getty Images
Rio Azul in Chubut, Argentina, is within three miles of the region’s worst wildfires. | ATicuS/Moment Open/Getty Images

I moved from the suburbs of Michigan to Argentine Patagonia in 2009, and haven’t regretted it a single day since. My three kids grew up climbing ancient knotty ñire trees, swimming alongside massive trout in transparent glacial rivers, gathering walnuts in autumn and shelling them by the woodstove. Days are spent working in the garden and enjoying long, leisurely lunches with neighbors. The surreal natural beauty that surrounds my little adobe home in El Bolsón, not too far from the legendary road trip Route 40, is astounding.

But it is the kind and welcoming community I appreciate most. Twelve years ago, as a newcomer who barely spoke Spanish, my neighbors were inviting me to asados and sharing holiday traditions in no time. I’ve gotten close to this community by teaching English, hosting seed exchanges, receiving guests on my land for meditation and sacred medicine retreats, and collaborating with the indigenous Mapuche to study native medicinal plants.

Earlier this month, I sat on my roof in absolute shock to watch over 75,000 acres of pristine Patagonian forest get completely devoured by wildfire. The flames destroyed close to 300 homes and left over 1,000 of my Patagonian neighbors without shelter. The latest fire, on March 9, moved in so fast and was so widespread that it is estimated to have burned 2.5 acres every 3.5 seconds. The local Golondrinas Fire Station burned to the ground. 

wildfire damage
Aerial view of the damage to this famously beautiful region. | Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina

There is no home insurance in this rural area; many live in humble dwellings that took years to build with their own hands, heated by wood collected on their land, nourished by food from their own gardens and livestock. Many of those people are now living in tents made from a few sticks and black plastic, as the harsh Patagonian winter fast approaches.

There’s my neighbor Juan who, when he realized he had no escape route from the encroaching flames, managed to hide with two small children in a pool of water. There’s Marcelo the mechanic, who had to be dragged off his land by firefighters because he was trying to move as many clients’ vehicles as possible until the very last second. There’s “man-of-few-words” Pablo, who held back tears as he gave me a tour of the home he built 20 years ago, now reduced to rubble and ash.

While donations of clothing and household items have poured in from around the country, the government’s promises to send aid have yet to materialize. There has been next to no news coverage of the crisis, and I have yet to find any non-profit organizations mobilizing to help these communities. As part of the grassroots effort here, I am working with a team of volunteer professional builders who are on the ground every day, getting up as many structures as possible to house young families and the elderly. They offer their time, their tools, and their skillset, but they need roofing, insulation, water tanks, and wood stoves. I am soliciting donations and posting updates on our building progress on Instagram.

forests
Nearly 75,000 acres of pristine forest have burned. | Photo courtesy of Greenpeace Argentina

Meanwhile, volunteer firefighters have been going in on motorcycle and horseback, often with nothing more than some water in a backpack and hand tools. A local GoFundMe hopes to outfit at least one volunteer fire brigade with necessary equipment such as VHF handheld radios, fire pump backpacks, quality boots, fire-retardant suits, gloves, and goggles. 

Our community is already thinking ahead to reforestation efforts, with plans to disperse thousands of “seed bombs” in the style of Japanese agriculturalist Masanobu Fukuoka, filled with the seeds of native trees and wildflowers. Fruit and nut trees will be planted this autumn which, in a few years’ time, will replenish the orchards so many families depend on for food.

If you’d like to donate to one of the international NGOs working here in Argentina, the Tompkins Conservation does great work in ecological restoration throughout Patagonia, and Fundacion Vida Silvestre also works in local conservation. Patagonia is a natural wonderland filled with residents who routinely welcome visitors with open arms, yerba mate, and a traditional asado whenever they get the chance. I only hope that we can spread awareness, support, and appreciation for the stewards of this supremely beautiful land.

Cathy Brown splits her time between traveling the globe writing for Lonely Planet and CNN, working with Indigenous rights in the Brazilian Amazon, and hanging out at home in her garden and hosting permaculture and medicinal plant retreats. 

For more information on how you can help the Patagonian community recover from these devastating wildfires, write to cathybrown2100@gmail.com or send her a message through Instagram.
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