SANTA FE, Argentina – Known for his advocacy on the care of the planet, Pope Francis on Sunday was at it again, expressing his closeness to those in the United States and South America who’re suffering from the devastation of natural and man-caused fires.
His words echo pleas made by local churches in recent days.
“Many fires are caused by persistent drought, but there are also those caused by man,” Francis said. “May the Lord sustain those who are suffering the consequences of these catastrophes and make us careful to preserve creation.”
The Argentine pontiff mentioned three specific regions that are currently suffering from devastating fires: “I am thinking of the West Coast of the United States, particularly California, and I am also thinking of the central regions of South America, to the Panatal zone of Paraguay, to the banks of the Paraná River in Argentina.”
Reinforcing his concern, similar words were shared through his Twitter accounts in multiple languages, slightly abbreviated to fit the maxim of 280 characters the platform offers, but still naming these three regions.
I am near to those people affected by wildfires: on the West Coast of the United States, especially California, the central regions of South America, the Pantanal area, Paraguay, the banks of the Paraná River, and Argentina. May the Lord sustain them.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) October 11, 2020
California’s extraordinary year of wildfires spawned another new milestone last week, when the August complex fire in the state’s northern region expanded beyond one million acres, elevating the category from “megafire” to “gigafire,” never used before in a contemporary setting in the state.
The fire encompasses a region larger than the state of Rhode Island, and it’s affected seven counties according to Cal Fire. Several small fires began when lightning struck dry forest in California in August, and grew to what is today a half-contained fire that’s been burning for over 50 days.
This “gigafire” however, is only the largest of several that have devastated four million acres of California this year.
“People are just stunned, with the pandemic and the downturn in the economy and the racial issues and then on top of that, the wildfires,” said Bishop Oscar Cantú, head of the Diocese of San Jose, said in an interview weeks after the fires began. “It makes you wonder, what else? All we need is an earthquake.”
When commenting on the invitation issued by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles to pray the rosary for the United States on Oct. 7, Bishop William M. Joensen of Des Moines, Iowa, agreed the prayer initiative is needed at a time of so many different “sources of tension,” including political ones.
Joensen appreciated the initiative’s attempt to represent different parts of the country: “I think each region has its own particular cross that they’re carrying right now, and we’re looking for signs of hope,” he said, citing the recent fires on the West Coast and drought conditions in parts of the Midwest as examples. “This could be one moment when we reflect God’s light and abiding presence to one another.”
The fires in Paraguay are far from becoming a “gigafire,” but the devastation caused by the fires is still alarming.
There are some 7,000 small fires through out the country, which makes the work of the firefighters virtually impossible – there are more sources of heat than people trained to fight them. Thousands of acres have been ravaged by the flames. Most of the fires began with the burning of garbage despite the severe draught and the 40-miles-per hour winds.
“The volunteer firefighters and collaborators of our country are doing their best to mitigate the sources of fires, but they are at a disadvantage due to the number of burns and the lack of resources, therefore, they insist on the citizens to collaborate each one from their space , accompanying with initiatives of committed solidarity,” said the bishops in a statement released last week.
“We’re asked to be true custodians of creation, of God’s plan inscribed in nature, guardians of the other and of the environment,” they wrote.
The prelates urged the people of Paraguay to take small but decisive actions to stop the spread of the fires: Avoid burning garbage and woodlands and become aware of the serious consequences of the fires.
In their statement, they argued that the natural disaster currently harming the country should not be minimized because it not only devastates the environment but also the citizens of Paraguay, particularly those who endure respiratory diseases.
There are multiple fires in Pope Francis’s homeland of Argentina, but the pontiff focused on a raging fire that’s been described as “completely out of control,” and is threatening one of South America’s major wetland ecosystems, the Parana delta.
Though fires in the floodplain known as “la isla” are a yearly occurrence, the scale of the calamity this time is unprecedented: Where satellite-detected hotspots average 1,800 a year, there have been over 8,000 thus far in 2020, beginning in February and continuing to this day. One shore of the floodplain is in Entre Rios, while across the river seats Rosario, one of Argentina’s central cities and home to the country’s leading grain export hub.
For weeks at a time, the streets of Rosario and other places along the Parana were covered with a layer of ash from scorched plants and animals, and the air on the riverside of the city has been unbreathable.
The terrain affected by the fires, despite its popular name, is not an island but a vast delta covering some 9,000 square miles through which the Parana river, the second largest in South America after the Amazon, drains towards the Atlantic Ocean, some 150 miles away.
Although cattle ranchers, poachers, tourists and property developers have encroached on its rich habitat, the Parana delta still teems with diverse wildlife, all facing a dire challenge to their survival due to the man-caused fires. Some are intentional: Ranchers yearly burn winter grass for it to grow better during spring, but the severe drought made the fires harder to control. Other hot spots are man-made but accidental: A cigarette that wasn’t properly put out or a glass bottle left under the scorching sun.
— Meri (@LicNutMeri) July 27, 2020
The Catholic Church has released several statements calling for the wetlands to be protected since the fires began. Arguably, the strongest of these came in late August, when several social ministries of the regions affected by the fires came together to produce a 4-minute video to raise awareness on the need to protect this area.
“No more fire in the wetlands!” appeals a female voice over stills and short video captures of the diverse fauna and flora of the region. “As Christians, we recognize and appreciate that the earth is a creature of God who, like Saint Francis of Assisi, we can call sister mother earth. We are in the middle of a socio-environmental crisis whose root is in the heart of man.”
Quoting Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on the environment Laudato Si‘, the dioceses of Santa Fe, Rosario, Reconquista and Entre Rios pointed out that “environmental degradation and human and ethical degradation are intimately linked.”
“Let us not let the signs of destruction and death accompany the path of this world of ours,” they added.
“We accompany the shouts of the populations and organizations that demand that the fires cease and that laws be passed to protect the areas of islands and wetlands, since they are lungs of the planet, full of biodiversity,” they concluded.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma