MEXICO CITY – Persistent wildfires affecting a majority of Mexico’s states have led to an environmental alert being issued for the Mexican capital and put authorities on the defensive.
Amid the crisis, the National Forestry Commission (Conafor) said Wednesday that around 3,800 firefighters have been deployed to combat around 100 blazes per day that are either active or being extinguished in forests spanning 20 of Mexico’s 32 states.
On Tuesday night, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum sought to shield herself from criticism, blaming the crisis in the capital on previous government’s failure to leave a protocol in place for high concentrations of wildfire-related fine particulate matter (PM 2.5).
Authorities in that capital finally opted early Tuesday to activate an “extraordinary” environmental emergency plan due to high levels of ozone and PM 2.5 particles in Greater Mexico City.
In doing so, the Environmental Commission of the Megalopolis (Came) said in a statement that its Nezahuacoyotl measuring station detected levels of ozone and PM 2.5 particles – 142 points and 160 points, respectively, on its Air Quality Index – that indicated “very poor” air quality.
On Wednesday, the PM 2.5 reading had fallen to 140 points, which is indicative of “poor” air quality.
Nevertheless, hundreds of photos and videos uploaded to social media show the capital shrouded in air pollution, and it remains unclear when the state of extraordinary environmental contingency will be lifted.
Sheinbaum said in her video message that after meeting with Came personnel she issued an order to deploy 500 additional firefighters in the capital to fight the blazes.
The mayor’s comments, however, sparked criticism from many social media users, many of whom said she was seeking to blame the previous administration for her own failings.
Nevertheless, the director of the National Institute of Respiratory Diseases, Jorge Salas, told EFE Wednesday that the measures taken by the current administration were appropriate considering the daily monitoring of the pollutants.
Came has issued numerous bulletins advising people to remain at home if possible with their windows closed.
Salas added that patients with chronic respiratory illnesses should take special precautions because exposure to high concentrations of pollutants could exacerbate their conditions.
Referring to the high number of fires, a fire management official at Conafor, Eduardo Cruz, told EFE that Mexico is experiencing a period of very low rainfall that typically runs from November or December to June.
He said the main factors causing the fires were agricultural burning carried out to prepare land for the sowing of crops. These blazes often spread due to high winds, sparking forest fires.
Through May 14, Conafor estimates that there have been 4,425 forest fires nationwide in 2019, down from 5,122 fires and 6,870 fires over the same period last year and in 2017, respectively.
At the federal level, the coordinator of senators for the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, said budget cuts by President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s administration were partly to blame for the fires.
The federal government cut from its 2019 budget a temporary employment program used to pay forest-fire-fighting brigades.
Cruz, however, said amid the controversy that the situation could change abruptly in three weeks when the rainy season is forecast to begin.