The fire season of 2014–2015 in Chile has been one of the worst of the last 50 years, with large and simultaneous fires affecting vast areas of Andean Araucaria–Nothofagus forests in several national parks, forest reserves and private properties. The worst-affected protected areas are China Muerta and Malleco National Reserves, and Conguillío and Tolhuaca National Parks, with an estimated total area of >12,000 ha burned. In 2002 fires burned >20,000 ha, affecting mostly the same protected areas and other private land covered by Araucaria forests, with c. 30 and 60% of the total area of Malleco National Reserve and Tolhuaca National Park burned, respectively. As then, the 2014–2015 fires have stirred public, political and scientific concern.
Fire is an intrinsic ecological process in these forests. Fire regimes are dominated by mixed-severity fires that include low-severity surface fires and crown fires, depending on forest type and topographic location. Fires typically result in a mosaic burnt to varying degrees of severity. In the last 150 years the fire regime has changed dramatically. With the arrival of Euro–Chilean settlers human-caused fires increased, and burning and logging (until Araucaria araucana was declared a National Monument in 1976) resulted in the loss of c. 50% of the original distribution of A. araucana.
Much of the Araucaria forests are confined to national parks and reserves that are valued for their cultural and spiritual significance by the Mapuche-Pehuenche peoples, and for their biodiversity and other ecosystem services. These areas have become refuges for the Araucaria–Nothofagus forests and action is required for the prevention and control of fires. Additionally, the consumption of seeds by exotic species and domestic animals, and the unregulated collection of seeds, and ranching, by local communities affect forest regeneration, especially in early post-fire recovery. Given predictions of reduced precipitation and increased temperatures for south-central Chile, these ecosystems will be exposed to more frequent fires.
As well as recent initiatives of the Chilean forest services for the restoration of these forests, there is a need for engagement with stakeholders, communities and the wider public to establish long-term commitments and partnerships for forest conservation. This may be the biggest challenge of all.